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Why President Obama needs to make history in 2012. Again.

at 02:32 PM ET, 08/03/2012

Amid the back and forth about Friday’s jobs report, one thing is abundantly clear: To win a second term on November 6, President Obama is going to have to defy history.


US President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during an event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus August 3, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke to urge Congress to pass tax cuts for the American middle class. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI
Why? Because the July jobs report affirmed the now-certain reality that the unemployment rate won’t drop below eight percent between today and November. And no sitting president since World War II has been re-elected with the unemployment rate above 7.2 percent.

The numbers are daunting for Obama. The unemployment rate has been above 8 percent for 42 straight months— its longest period ever.

Here’s that data in chart form:

The rate over the first seven months of 2012 has been remarkably consistent; it’s never been above 8.3 percent or below 8.1 percent. That steadiness speaks to the fact that it simply won’t drop in any precipitous way in the near or even medium term — a fact the Federal Reserve’s policy committee acknowledged in a statement earlier this week.

Just for kicks, we asked the folks at Hamilton Place Strategies, a Republican economic consulting firm, to project how many jobs the economy would need to add in each of the next three months for the unemployment rate to get underneath eight percent. The answer? 279,000 jobs a month, a total that even in the best month of 2012 — January when 275,000 jobs were created — the economy didn’t reach.

With even the most optimistic Democrats admitting that such sustained job growth is simply not going to happen, the question now is how/whether the country’s first black president can again make history by winning a second term amid record-high unemployment in the country.

The model for Obama in this quest is Republican Ronald Reagan who set the modern mark when he cruised to re-election in 1984 despite an unemployment rate of 7.2 percent.

But, that comparison is inexact due the difference in trend lines for Reagan and Obama on the unemployment rate.

While the unemployment rate was in double digits at the start of 1983, it began a steady — and somewhat dramatic — decline as Reagan prepared to run for a second term in 1984. That trend line meant that Reagan could effectively argue that his policies were beginning to work.

Obama’s trend line — a far less dramatic decline marred by spikes in each of the last three summers — makes it far more difficult for him to make the Reagan “see things are starting to work” case.

Instead what Obama must do is put forward a two-pronged argument: 1) Things would have been far worse had my Administration not acted in the way that we did and 2) Have you seen the other guy?

To date, the Obama campaign has been more successful in negatively defining former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (#2) than they have in making the case that the policies the president put in place avoided economic disaster (#1).

To win, however, Obama will need to make both arguments successfully. It’s a fine line to walk but given the historically difficult economic and electoral environment in which Obama has to run, it’s likely his only shot to step outside of historic norms — again.

 
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