President Obama’s budget gurus project that the unemployment rate will be 8.6 percent by the middle of next year.
For an incumbent president, that’s the political equivalent of running the 220-yard hurdles with a refrigerator strapped to your back.
Obama believes he can still win the race, though, because Americans will see the economy turning around. That’s why he so often evokes President Ronald Reagan’s success in 1984 amid a still-battered economy.
Conservatives, on the other hand, say Obama will go down in flames like Jimmy Carter in 1980, who lost in a 44-state rout to Reagan as the country slipped deeper into recession.
But the re-election struggles of yet another president may prove most instructive for Obama’s campaign organization: those of George H.W. Bush.
Obama’s projected unemployment rate for next year is based on the administration’s rosy outlook for growth. The White House projects a growth rate of 3.6 percent, nearly a full point higher than the last quarter of 2010. If growth stays closer to the current, anemic levels, as many economists predict, an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent is a strong possibility.
It’s hard to say exactly what effect a jobless rate so high would do to an incumbent because the rate has never been above 8 percent in an election year since the current index was established in 1948.
But we can look at the highest levels of the past to see how things might work out.
In the past 13 elections, the rate has been above 7 percent only four times -- 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1992. And as Obama has no doubt already observed, the incumbent president lost three out of four times.
Democrats believe Obama will end up like Reagan and not Gerald Ford, Carter and the elder Bush. Team Obama maintains that like the Gipper, Obama will benefit from a sense that things are going the right way after a period of prolonged economic misery and credit the president for the improvement.
But there’s serious reason to doubt that the country will be in a “Morning in America” mood by next fall. Remember that the optimistic White House growth projection for next year of 3.6 percent is precisely half of the 1984 growth rate of 7.2 percent. The economy was roaring back for Reagan’s reelection, not puttering, as Obama predicts it will be for his own.
What Obama’s economic forecast describes is a situation much more akin to 1992. That year, unemployment was at 7.4 percent and the economy was growing at a tepid 3.3 percent.
The short recession of 1991 had ended, but neither was there a sense that economic dynamism was returning. The country had a case of the blahs. Unlike the relief that came with the 1984 turnaround after a decade in which the economy had been lashed by low growth and inflation, the 1992 recovery had voters singing Peggy Lee’s song: “Is That All There Is?”
Barring the intrusion of major international events, the economy controls American presidential re-election bids like nothing else. Just as three of the four incumbents who sought re-election with unemployment above 7 percent have lost, every president seeking re-election since 1948 with unemployment below 7 percent has won.
Obama is right that context counts in how the strength of the economy plays into re-election efforts. But he may misunderstand what the current context is.
The president is betting that Americans are so petrified of a return of the dreadful days of the Panic of 2008 – the very crisis that secured his victory over John McCain – that they will be grateful for modest growth and stability.
There, Obama has two big problems.
First, no many how many times Obama has evoked the Great Depression in his speeches on the economy, the 2008 economic collapse was not that. The recent unpleasantness was a shock followed by malaise, all within a three-year window. The Depression gnawed at Americans for a dozen years. That was enough time to redefine the nation politically and to leave a shell-shocked population grateful for stability. The recent bubble bursting and its aftermath hasn’t put Americans in a mood to accept less than a vibrant turnaround. Frustration, not fear, predominates.
Second, that modest growth that Obama is hoping for may not be so easy to come by. The housing market is still in shambles while high energy prices and a badly devalued dollar have created a precarious economic climate. Low wages, creeping inflation and the regulatory uncertainty sewn by Obama’s policies on health care and banking suggest that the modest growth economists foresee will come in fits and starts. There may be more bad days than good ones.
So, while Obama is studying Reagan’s 1984 playbook, he might look more closely at Poppy Bush’s problems in 1992. After all, Obama lacks the political gifts of Reagan but does have the technocratic sensibilities of the first President Bush.
Bush likely would have won a second term, despite the shambling pace of the 1992 recovery and the claim that he was detached from everyday Americans (a charge often leveled at Obama), if it weren’t for the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot and the remarkable timing and political prowess of Bill Clinton.
Unless Michael Bloomberg or another liberal billionaire opts to make a go of it in 2012, Obama probably doesn’t have to worry about getting zapped by an outside candidate.
But as much as pundits pooh pooh the Republican field this year, Obama must also remember that few would have guessed in February of 1991 that the scandal-prone governor of Arkansas would win the Democratic nomination and unseat a sitting president who had just won a war.
Like they said, it was the economy, stupid.
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.