Why 272,000 is an unlucky number for President Obama

at 02:14 PM ET, 09/01/2011

One in an occasional series of posts looking at the most important number in politics; check out past “MINP’s” here.

272,000

On Friday morning the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release its latest monthly jobs report, a moment that the Obama Administration has come to dread as it seems likely to signal another month closer to the 2012 election without major economic momentum.

Projections in advance of the announcement suggest 100,000 (or so) private-sector jobs created in August, a number roughly equivalent to the 117,000 jobs created in July and far better than the performance of the job market in June (46,000 jobs) or May (53,000).

No matter what the number is, it’s not likely to be anywhere close to the 272,000 jobs the economy would have needed to have created in August (and every single month from now until November 2012) in order to drop the unemployment rate below 8 percent by election day, according to calculations made by Republican economic strategist Matt McDonald.

What that mathematical reality means is that President Obama and his political team need to prepare for a re-election campaign in which he, again, proves himself to be historically anomalous.

Obama pulled that trick off in 2008 when he not only was the first African American to be elected to the nation’s highest office but he also put together a massive 365 electoral vote victory that included victories in states like Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana where a Democratic presidential candidate hadn’t won in more than three decades.

The challenge before him in 2012 is equally daunting from a historical perspective. No sitting president has ever won a second term with the unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent, which is where the jobless number stood for President Ronald Reagan in the fall of 1984.

There’s no economist — Democrat or Republican — who believes that the unemployment rate will dip anywhere close to that low before November 2012. By McDonald’s estimate, the economy needs to grow by 220,000 job every month — including August — between now and next November for unemployment to drop below even 8.5 percent.

Where does Obama then go strategically?

In a new piece for Time magazine, Michael Scherer reports on a June meeting of the senior White House staff at Fort McNair in which presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke — and in so doing made the case for how Obama could win.

Writes Scherer:

The answer Beschloss provided gave some lift to Obama’s team. No law in politics is ever 100% accurate, he said. Two Presidents in the last century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and Ronald Reagan in 1984, won re-election amid substantial economic suffering. Both used the same basic strategy. They argued that the country, though in pain, was improving, and that the ideas of their opponents, anchored in past failures, would make things worse.

The question for Obama is whether by around this time next year he will be able to point to signs of improvement in the country. If not, it may not matter how well he is able to demonize his opponents since races featuring incumbents are more likely to be referendums rather than a choice between two equal options.

Obama has shown a knack for making history in his (still) relatively short political career. But as month after month of so-so — at best — economic numbers keep piling up, it’s becoming more and more apparent that to win in 2012 he’ll need to do it again.

Impossible? Nope. But it’s far from where this White House hoped to be 14 months before the 2012 election.

 
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