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Obama a One-Term President? History Suggests Room for a Turnaround

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Nov. 8, 2011: President Obama speaks at Yeadon Regional Head Start Center in Yeadon, Pa. (AP)

These are dark days for the Obama administration. 

President Obama's approval ratings are down. The unemployment rate is stubbornly high. Economic growth is weak -- or "frustratingly slow," as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke put it last week. 

But Obama won't, and can't, be counted out. 

While a bevy of eager Republicans compete to be the one who makes Obama a "one-term president," as one would-be rival, Rep. Michele Bachmann, likes to repeat, the president is not necessarily in unelectable territory. 

Ronald Reagan, at this point in his first term, was facing a national jobless rate nearly as high as today's, his approval at just 49 percent. He went on to win 49 states in the 1984 election. 

By contrast, Jimmy Carter was presiding over a much-improved jobs picture in the fall of his third year. He lost to Reagan in 1980. 

History offers two apparent lessons. First, elections cannot be called a year out. 

"There is no way on earth to predict an election a year in advance," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

Second, an incumbent's fate is at least partially tied to the whims of the economy in that final year of the first term. In Carter's case, his loss was preceded by deterioration in the job market. For Reagan, what was an 8.8 percent unemployment rate in October 1983 dropped perceptibly, to 7.2 percent on Election Day. Declaring "morning" in America, Reagan won in a landslide over Walter Mondale

So is there time for Obama to turn things around? 

According to Sabato, Obama's fate at this point rests largely on luck. 

"At this point, he's out of bullets. ... They aren't going to manufacture luck. It's either going to happen or it isn't," Sabato said. "Obama wins if he gets lucky on the economy, if he gets lucky on his opponent. ... and don't forget about third parties." 

Facing a GOP-controlled House and a Senate only narrowly controlled by Democrats, Obama has had a far tougher time passing legislation this year than he did in the first half of his term. 

That being the case, the last Democrat to hold the presidency said Obama could be in "pretty good shape" in 2012 if voters are convinced the reason the economy is bad is "because the Congress refused to work with the president." 

Bill Clinton, in an interview with USA Today published Monday, said he doesn't want Obama to get "discouraged, and it's obvious he's not." 

Clinton's election as president served as a rejoinder to the notion that approval ratings a year out matter. 

In the fall of 1991, then-President George H.W. Bush had a 59 percent approval rating -- far better than Obama's 43 percent Gallup rating as of the end of October. But in what was supposed to be a foreign policy election, Clinton eroded Bush's standing by centering on the economy, as the jobless rate steadily rose. 

For Obama, there are some positive signs. For one, his fundraising is strong. So far, he and the Democratic Party have outraised the Republicans -- bringing in $70 million in the third quarter alone. Just last month, the campaign announced that more than 1 million people had donated to the campaign in support of Obama's re-election. 

A Gallup poll released last week also showed Obama tied against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- and beating Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain in hypothetical matchups. 

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said there's still time for Obama to either "win beautiful" like Reagan, and campaign on a yet-to-be-realized economic recovery, or "win ugly" like Richard Nixon by hammering his opponent into oblivion. Nixon, too, faced low approval ratings in his third year, but went on to trounce then-Sen. George McGovern, who was seen as a weak candidate.  

"Neither one of those (routes) is closed off yet," Trippi said.

But while a few past incumbents in trying times have turned things around before the election, Obama faces some realities that are unprecedented. 

The national debt is now at about $15 trillion -- a situation that contributed to the first-ever credit rating downgrade of the U.S., by Standard & Poor's. Washington is trying to rein in the deficit and improve the long-term outlook, but the so-called Super Committee tasked with achieving some reductions is struggling to reach the $1.2 trillion minimum deficit-reduction goal. 

Longtime Republican strategist Sal Russo said despite the success of presidents like Reagan in turning things around that last year, he doesn't see that happening with Obama. He said Obama has not planted the seeds for a robust recovery in the year ahead. 

"I think practically, it's at the point of no return," said Russo, now co-founder of and chief strategist at the Tea Party Express. "People have to be hopeful about the future and see that things are changing for the better. That was Reagan's thing. ... Today, nobody sees the future as bright." 

In a sign of the difficult times, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley has turned over some of his responsibilities to Pete Rouse, the man he replaced just 10 months ago. A senior White House official told Fox News that Daley proposed expanding Rouse's responsibilities after Daley "took some heat for the problems with Congress."

GOP strategist Terry Holt said Obama likely has until the second quarter of 2012 to convince Americans that the economy is improving. 

"Ultimately, it's still possible to get elected. He's an incumbent president. They have a lot of tools at their disposal," he said. "They never really stood down their political operation." 

But Holt said, "the fundamentals in the global economy ... don't make people terribly optimistic." He said the president's health care overhaul "blew a huge hole in the vote with seniors," and a united Republican front will give the GOP nominee a "real shot at beating him."