Friday’s big drop in the national unemployment rate to its lowest level since early 2009 comes as welcome news to President Obama, whose approval numbers have languished in the low-40s since this summer. As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza suggests, Obama “desperately needs some evidence that the economy is starting to move in the right direction.” But are these numbers enough to bring him up from below sea level?
It’s almost impossible to answer that question with certainty, but here are three charts that provide some clues:
First, look at the connection between the unemployment rate and Obama’s job approval in Washington Post-ABC News polls:
Obama’s approval numbers dropped significantly while the unemployment rate was surging to 10.1 percent in 2009, but his numbers haven’t bounced back as the jobless rate has improved. Obama seems to have benefited from a particularly sharp drop in the jobless rate from November 2010 to January 2011. But after that, his approval marks continued their descent, briefly interrupted by a bounce after Osama bin Laden was killed in May.
Here’s the second chart, showing the percentage of Americans hearing good, bad or mixed news about the economy since Obama took office, according to monthly Pew Research Center surveys.
Focus on the green line – the percentage of the public hearing “mostly good news” about the economy. It’s remarkably low and flat. Although the numbers hearing negative news or a “mix of both good and bad news” has varied, the percent hearing good news has been stuck in the single digits. Obama needs the overall tone of news coverage to shift dramatically to reap the benefit of a falling unemployment rate.
Now to the third chart – negative economic news and the unemployment rate.
Even if the unemployment situation continues to improve, there’s no guarantee that Americans will perceive the economy as getting better. The tone of economic news hasn’t closely followed changes in unemployment since Obama has been in office. Americans reported hearing less negative economic news as the jobless rate was rising in 2009. The two indicators have tracked more closely in the past few months, but it’s unclear whether a new dynamic has taken hold, or whether negative news is simply taking a breather after the near crisis over Congress raising the federal debt ceiling.
Surely Obama hopes to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, who rode a strong economic recovery to reelection in 1984. As we’ve noted before, a boom of Reagan proportions is quite unlikely – the United States gained a whopping 5.6 million jobs in the 14 months before Election Day 1984 (nearly 500,000 per month). By comparison, 120,000 jobs were created in November, according to Friday’s jobs report.
What do you think? How much could Obama benefit from an improving job picture?