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Can economy help Obama reelection? One statistic gives him hope.

Since 1948 only one incumbent president has won reelection with joblessness over 7 percent. There is another unemployment statistic, however, that could play in President Obama's favor.

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The Republican rebuttal speech, given by Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, argued that the economy is in worse shape than when Obama took office.

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“The President did not cause the economic and fiscal crises that continue in America tonight," Governor Daniels said. "But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse: the percentage of Americans with a job is at the lowest in decades."

It's true that the number of employed Americans, as a percentage of all working-age people, so far hasn't begun to revive significantly from the devastating impact of the recession. The population is growing, and unemployment has fallen in part because of people finding new jobs, and partly because so many people aren't even looking for work.

In recent months, consumer confidence has revived somewhat but remains at a very low level.

Still, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week found that for the first time in seven months, more people approve of Obama's job performance than disapprove, at 48 percent to 46 percent.

Among registered voters, 55 percent would choose Obama over Mr. Gingrich (at 37 percent) in a head-to-head vote today, the poll found. They favored Obama over Romney by 49 percent to 43 percent.

At the same time, many forecasters see the economy remaining relatively weak throughout the current year, with GDP growth running generally below the 2.8 percent pace seen in the fourth quarter.

Even signs of improvement in the job market could carry a risk for Obama, some political analysts say.

"This little bit of good news is likely to raise the hopes of the great army of the discouraged – many of whom will now start looking for work," writes Robert Reich, an economist and former Labor Secretary under President Clinton, in a recent blog post. "And what happens when they start looking? If they don’t find a job (and, let’s face it, the chances are still slim) they’ll be counted as unemployed."

Mr. Reich says the unemployment rate could tick upward in coming months. Even if it doesn't, many economists don't see a big additional decline in the jobless rate this year, partly for the reason Reich outlines.

All this leaves the economy, and voter perceptions of it, as a major question mark for the 2012 election. It's too soon to say it will become a winning issue for Obama. But the signs also suggest Republicans shouldn't be feeling overconfident.

RECOMMENDED: Unemployment, Inc.: Six reasons why America can't create jobs

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