Can Obama Overcome Job Numbers -- and History?

Can Obama Overcome Job Numbers -- and History?

By Alexis Simendinger - August 3, 2012

When 8.3 percent of Americans are unemployed and an election is a little over three months away, it's a flat-out certainty that President Obama is going to have to defy some historical assumptions to find a path to victory.

That may not sound startling, but consider the four predictors often cited by political scientists, pollsters and presidential historians: If unemployment at the time of the election is above 7 percent, incumbents supposedly don’t win. If presidents’ job approval numbers are below 50 percent, one term is a good bet. If Americans’ personal incomes are declining at the time they fill out their ballots, they vote their wallets, which is bad news for the current office holders. And when a majority of the electorate believes the country is headed in the wrong direction, sitting presidents don’t prosper on Election Day.

So, when the government reported Friday that the economy produced 163,000 new private-sector jobs last month, increasing the nation’s high unemployment rate from June by 0.1 percent, many economic analysts, already gloomy about the nation’s contracting growth rate in the second quarter, continued saying that a dramatic economic turnaround before Nov. 6 appeared unlikely.

Washington’s end-of-year fiscal cliff instills fear; Europe’s debt and currency problems still fester; global growth, including in Asia, has slowed and is beginning to impact the United States; and there are evident risks posed by Iran, Syria, oil prices, and drought, to name a few.

“We’re facing a stall-speed problem,” Joseph Minarik, senior vice president and director of research with the Committee for Economic Development, told RCP. “Do we get to the point where a headwind arises that slows the plane?”

That's how Mitt Romney already sees it. Reacting to Friday's jobs report, he called the latest figures a "hammer blow to the middle class" and promised that policies he would enact as president "will turn things around and bring the economy roaring back, with twelve million new jobs created by the end of my first term."

In addition to the unemployment problem, there’s nothing too sunny for Obama among the other telling markers that supposedly foreshadow who will be the next president. His job approval hasn’t hit 50 percent since May of last year, after Osama bin Laden was killed. Americans’ personal incomes went nowhere through most of the president’s term, but expanded this year, reflected in government data showing healthier (and revised) numbers for the first and second quarters. And six in 10 Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction (the last time a majority of the country said the United States was on the right track was back in 2003).

Bad omens all.

Yet, recent polls suggest the electoral math, voter demographics and Mitt Romney’s challenges as a candidate could align to keep Obama in the White House despite a limping economy -- thereby defying the dark portents served up during previous presidential elections.

One of the oddities of 2012 has been the electorate’s assessment about how the economy got into this mess, who’s to blame, and who has the best chance to fix it. Americans say unemployment has remained high in part because fighting in Washington has blocked legislative action. In addition, they’re more apt to blame “Congress” than the president. And while assigning blame, majorities consistently say George W. Bush is responsible for the current state of the economy, rather than Obama. All of that might indicate that the president is sporting some custom-made Teflon.

But according to recent polls, Romney has been ranked by the public as better able to handle the deficit, the economy, job creation, and taxes, while Obama is ahead of his challenger on foreign policy, and the two candidates are head-to-head in terms of handling health care. People know Obama better than Romney and they say the president is more likeable, trustworthy, and understands their problems better than does the former Massachusetts governor. But Romney’s strength among voters may spring from their confidence that the Republican candidate can “get things done.”

So far, Obama has not been arguing that Romney cannot or will not settle disagreements with Congress to get things done -- just the opposite. The president warns supporters that the former governor will get the wrong things done -- he’ll join forces with his party to enact policies embraced during the Bush years with unhappy results.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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