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The Perception Dilemma The Perception Dilemma

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The Perception Dilemma

How different subgroups view the economy and its pace of recovery is crucial for Obama.

A crowd of people wait in line for a job fair to open, in May, Independence, Ohio.(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

photo of Reid Wilson
December 7, 2011

President Obama is embarking on the campaign trail alongside his best friend and his worst enemy: good economic news. Positive reports like the administration received last week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics hint at an economy that is turning the corner. But the pace of that recovery is painfully slow, and perceptions of a course correction have been slow to take hold among the very voters Obama needs to win reelection.

In the next 11 months, the White House will aim to convince voters that the administration’s policies are working. The jobs report released last Friday suggests a year of relatively positive economic news to come, assuming Europe doesn’t collapse. But the tortoise-like pace of the recovery has damaged Obama’s standing, and the GOP’s central message will blame the president’s policies for that stagnation.

Economic perception is frequently divorced from economic reality, and both sides are engaged in a furious battle to spin the numbers their way.


Obama’s team must try to convince voters not only that the economy is recovering, but that it is recovering fast enough. They will point to evidence of mounting jobs gains, especially in the private sector, and to the administration’s efforts to extend a payroll-tax, despite a recalcitrant Republican House.

For some, the pace of recovery is improving; the unemployment rate among those with college educations stands at just 4.4 percent. Among all white men, the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.3 percent, down more than half a point in the last month alone. White women have a 6.9 percent unemployment rate.

But those voters are less likely to approve of the job Obama is doing. A Quinnipiac University survey taken last month shows just 33 percent of registered voters approve of Obama’s handling of the economy. The poll, conducted Nov. 14-20 among 2,552 registered voters, shows just 31 percent approval among college-educated white voters.

The voters who make up Obama’s base, meanwhile, are facing a much slower recovery, and may even be getting worse. Among African-Americans, the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the unemployment rate at 15.5 percent, an increase over the last month. Fewer black Americans are participating in the labor force as well, a sign that thousands have given up looking for jobs. The unemployment rate among Hispanic voters stands at 11.4 percent, around the same level it’s been for months.

Younger Americans, too, are having trouble finding jobs. The unemployment rates for those ages 20-24 stood at 14.2 percent, while 9.2 percent of 25-34-year-olds were still searching for work.

Together, these groups made up a significant portion of Obama’s base. African-Americans, Hispanics, and younger voters, who were much of his activist volunteer base in 2008, accounted for nearly half of the votes Obama received in the election. But the recovery has not reached them as fast as it has other voters.

Paradoxically, those who are not seeing the benefits of recovery have a more positive outlook on the economy than those for whom the situation is getting better, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In that survey, 37 percent of white voters say they have heard mostly bad news about the economy in the past week, while 56 percent say they’ve heard a mix of good and bad news. Just 26 percent of African-Americans have said they’ve seen mostly bad news, while 68 percent said they’ve seen a mix between optimism and pessimism.

(Overall, voter attitudes about the economy are improving, albeit slowly. A November survey from Pew showed 48 percent of voters perceiving the economy in a mostly bad light, with another 48 percent saying they had mixed perceptions. The December poll showed mixed perceptions among 56 percent of all Americans, while negative perceptions had fallen to 36 percent.)

The strength of Obama’s campaign will be determined in part on its ability to convince voters that the recovery is real, and in part on its ability to keep an economically depressed base optimistic about his presidency.

The latter mission is successful so far; the difficulty will be the former.

Republicans will make the powerful case that what the administration calls a recovery is illusory.

At the moment, voters agree with the GOP. In September, the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found Obama’s team has more work to do in convincing voters his policies are helping. Just 21 percent of voters said Obama’s economic policies have made conditions better, while 39 percent said they had made things worse. Even African-Americans, who always register higher support for Obama than other subgroups, weren’t hot for his ideas; just 40 percent said White House policies have made things better.

Obama’s early optimism could come back to haunt him. In pitching the economic-stimulus package Congress passed in February 2009, the administration projected the unemployment rate would have stood just north of 5 percent by the end of 2012. Now, the Federal Reserve has projected that the unemployment rate will finish next year around 8.5 percent.

Obama’s path to reelection runs through such key battleground states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where white college-educated voters play a determinative role. The key to winning those voters will lie in convincing them not that the economy is healed, but that it is getting better. Those voters aren’t buying his logic, yet.


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