As he begins to think about his own reelection hopes, President Obama ought to be praying every night for three things to happen.
First, he should pray for a speedy economic recovery with impressive job growth. Second, he should hope that the troop surge in Afghanistan turns out to be successful. Finally, the president should be praying every night that Republicans nominate former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be their standard bearer. All three aren’t necessary for his reelection—but at least one is.
The economy will no doubt be the toughest nut for the president to crack. This Friday, we will get a new reading on job creation, when the November unemployment rates are released. The general feeling among economists is that it might tick down a tenth of a point from 9.6 to 9.5 percent, with about 150,000 net new jobs created. That is about the level of growth necessary to keep up with population growth and begin to chip away at unemployment.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the economic challenge facing this president. The national unemployment rate moved from 7.7 percent in January 2009 to 8.2 percent in February 2009, Obama’s first full month in office.
It has been above 8 percent ever since, 21 consecutive months so far. Without a doubt, Obama inherited this mess, but he now has complete ownership of the economy.
To put it in historical context, the Bureau of Labor Statistics began computing unemployment rates in January 1948, giving us 754 months thus far of unemployment data. Of that, only 50 months have seen unemployment at 8 percent or higher, and 21 of those months have been under Obama. In addition, in 16 of the last 17 months, we’ve seen unemployment at the stomach-churning level of 9.5 percent or higher.
Last week, the Federal Reserve Board projected an unemployment rate of about 9 percent for 2011 and 8 percent for 2012. While those numbers are sobering, some other economists are suggesting even higher rates for each.
Wells Fargo’s economics unit, for example, is pointing to an unemployment rate of 9 percent for 2012. One can say that no post-World War II president has been reelected with four straight years of 8-plus percent unemployment, but even the losing incumbent presidents didn’t have that millstone around their necks.
During President Ronald Reagan’s first term, unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent in November and December 1982 but dropped two full percentage points during 1983. In January 1984, the first month of Reagan’s reelection year, the number dropped into the 7-percent range and stayed there, finishing at 7.2 percent in November 1984 when he won his 49-state landslide on the theme that it was “Morning in America.”
So, when you see economic models forecasting presidential results for 2012, keep in mind that none of the models has ever seen anything comparable to four full years of 8-plus percent unemployment. Not many of us have ever heard the term deleveraging until just recently. I certainly had not. But it has become a central drag on our economy, one that makes a strong rebound exceedingly difficult.
On Afghanistan, however, Obama is the ironic beneficiary of the success of President George W. Bush’s Iraq surge. Though many were skeptical about that surge working, it did, effectively buying Obama a honeymoon for his own surge in Afghanistan.
Though in Democratic ranks there are plenty of skeptics and downright opponents to the war and the surge in Afghanistan, most are keeping quiet for now. How long that lasts remains to be seen.
According to figures from icasualties.com, 458 U.S. military personnel have been killed so far this year in Afghanistan, compared to 317 in 2009 and 155 in 2008. It is not hard to imagine Obama next year getting urged by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of both U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, to take a go-slow approach to troop withdrawal. At the same time, however, one could also imagine war critics like former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean pushing the president for an immediate withdrawal of forces.
We’ve learned in the past that while nomination challenges to incumbent presidents are unsuccessful, they can have terrible consequences for that president. Whether it was Reagan challenging President Ford in 1976, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., taking on President Carter in 1980, or commentator Pat Buchanan running against President George H.W. Bush in 1992, it is horrific for a president when he has to fend off a challenge from the party’s flanks—it drains resources and he must reposition himself. When all is said and done, the president could find himself in a heck of a bind.
In a November 4-7 Gallup Poll of 1,021 adults, Palin has a 40 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable rating. That poll had a 4-point error margin.
But that only tells part of the story. Yes, 80 percent of Republicans and just 15 percent of Democrats view Palin favorably; that is to be expected.
But the most important set of numbers is among independents. Just 35 percent view Palin favorably, while 53 percent do not. A CBS News poll taken from October 1-5 among 1,129 adults puts her favorability among independents at just 21 percent with 44 percent viewing her unfavorably. Having an opponent who starts off the race upside down with independents is something that the president can only fantasize about.
This article appears in the Nov. 30, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.