GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney predictably jumped all over the July jobs report in which joblessness ticked up slightly. He called it a hammer blow for the middle-class.
It’s anything but that. The report also showed a jump in the number of jobs for the month. Some non-partisan economists and financial experts predict a slow but steady trend upward in the job numbers over the next few months. That’s potentially a plus for Obama’s re-election.
Certainly much has been made of the fact that no president has won re-election since World War II with the jobless rate above eight percent. That and the report seemed to spell bad news for President Obama.
But it’s not strictly good or bad job numbers that determine whether sitting presidents will continue to reside in the Oval Office or will be sent packing by voters; it’s the timing. In a look at how six of eight presidents fared since 1948 when the economy hit the skids or appeared to skid, the scorecard for presidents winning and losing because of economic misery is a draw.
Three incumbents were beaten and three incumbents beat back their challengers. It came down to whether or not voters really perceived their economic plight would stay the same, or get worse, if the incumbent returned to the Oval Office for another four years.
The winners and losers have been both Republican and Democratic presidents. They have won and lost even when there was widespread public unease over the economy and many voters believed things wouldn’t get any better.
The presidents who won had to do two crucial things in the face of rising unemployment, recession, inflation and public grumbles. First, the economy had to improve or appear to improve immediately before the election. Second, they had to reassure a majority of voters that things would, and could get better with them, if they stayed in the White House.
Romney and Obama both understand that the battle is not over job numbers or the economy’s performance. The numbers can be spun for or against an incumbent. Obama’s job is to drive home the notion that things are and will get better under his leadership in the next four years. Romney’s single-minded aim is to convince voters that things won’t.
Incumbents and their challengers have danced around the economic numbers and voter perceptions repeatedly with mixed results.
Both Presidents Gerald Ford and Bush Sr. lost their dances. The combination of real and voter perceived economic woe helped sink both of them. In President Jimmy Carter’s case, the economy helped him and then brought him down. When the economy went bad for Ford in 1976, Carter played up that fact and won a narrow victory over Ford.
But four years later, GOP presidential challenger Ronald Reagan turned the tables on Carter. With interest rates soaring, home prices escalating, high unemployment and Carter seemingly clueless on how to halt the slide, Reagan was able to nail Carter with the iconic question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” during the Oct. 28, 1980 debate. Reagan won in a near landslide.
The exact reverse was true for Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan’s supply-side economics and big tax cuts were credited with igniting a mid-1980s economic boom. Clinton’s tax hike, deficit reduction program and investment stimulus program, were credited with turning a record deficit into a record surplus and adding millions of new jobs to the rolls.
As Reagan’s vice president, Bush Sr. benefited from Reagan’s economic policies. In 1988, he won the election. Four years later, when things turned sour, he lost.
The downturn for Bush Sr. came during the last two years of his term. The last thing that an incumbent wants is for voters to go to the polls with fear and doubt fresh in their minds about the economy.
But Bush Sr.’s history did not repeat itself when his son George W. Bush won his re-election in 2004. Unemployment was high and economic growth, as Democrats happily noted, was slower than during Clinton’s second term. But the Clinton record was the stuff of envy and impossibly hard to match. There was just enough economic growth and a slightly downward trend in overall unemployment during the last two years of Bush’s first term to largely mute any Democratic attacks on him for a miserable economy.
Bush took the cue and solemnly pledged the economy would grow even more with his tax cuts, downsizing of government, and drive to deregulate in his second term. If the economic negatives had hit harder in Bush’s last two years, as it did with his father, this could have spelled the same disaster for him as it did for Bush Sr.
The proverbial “it’s the economy, stupid” is a hard fact of presidential elections. But history has shown it can work for or against sitting presidents, depending on when voters perceive the economy as improving or failing. That can help or hurt President Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.