POLITICALLY, the announcement of the 10.1 percent unemployment figure was the dropping of the other shoe. For a couple of weeks, White House strategists have been bewailing the possible effects of double-digit unemployment, and Democrats have been anticipating them with glee. Most politicians have memories long enough to remember the Great Depression and the decades of public dread of high unemployment that followed, and they assume instinctively that 10 percent unemployment -- a level not recorded since 1941 -- will make a great emotional impact on voters. But for many voters the number, high as it is, does not seem to have such resonance. The typical American voter today is 44 years old, born in 1938; for her, the Depression is a chapter in a history text, not a searing personal experience.
Which is not to say that the unemployment figure won't have any impact at all. For at least five years now, voters have called on politicians to improve the economy, and they have focused most of that time on stopping inflation rather than on lowering unemployment. They have not looked for the quick fix (the 30 percent tax cut was one of the least popular planks in Ronald Reagan's platform in 1980) but for long-term solutions. The question voters must decide is whether the rise in the September unemployment rate is just an isolated uptick, or whether it, together with the decline in leading indicators in August and possibly other statistical measures, signals that the recovery the administration has promised is not coming. Polls have suggested that voters are willing to wait until 1984 to give a final verdict on the Reagan economic program, on the sensible notion that it takes longer than a year or so to see whether a long-term solution has been achieved. But if voters should decide that a long-term solution is not likely at all, they may be willing to issue their verdict earlier, in this November's elections.
Of course, voters do not sit down with a pad of paper full of statistics and then decide for whom to vote. It is not so much the numbers that shape a voter's attitude; it is the feelings in his gut. Questioned individually, few voters give us an articulate picture of how the economy is doing. But collectively, the electorate often proves sensitive to economic trends that are not recorded in the statistics until months after the election. So Nov. 2 will be a kind of poll, not so much on whether voters are pleased with the progress of Reaganomics so far, but on whether they think it has a chance of solving in the long term the economic problems that include but go beyond 10.1 percent unemployment.