This quote from the New York Times is getting a lot of attention today:

“No American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent.”

That sounds pretty grim for Obama. But Steve Benen supplies crucial context, noting that no president since FDR has won with such high unemployment because no president since FDR has taken office amid such a severe economic crisis:

Of course the unemployment rate won’t be below 7.2%. Under the circumstances and given the calamity Obama inherited, that’s impossible.

The more relevant question is what Americans are willing to put up with. In 1934, during FDR’s first midterms, the unemployment rate was about 22%. The public was thrilled — it had come down considerably from 1932. By 1936, when FDR was seeking a second term, the unemployment rate was about 17%. How can an incumbent president win re-election with a 17% unemployment rate? Because things were getting better, not worse.

That’s obviously the challenge for President Obama. The 7.2% threshold is largely irrelevant — comparing the current economic circumstances to what other modern presidents have dealt with is silly. The more relevant metric is directional — are things better or getting worse by the time voters head to the polls, and if worse, who gets the blame.

Agreed. I’d only add that the high unemployment is politically relevant for precisely this reason — voters may be very willing to pin the blame for the economy on Obama, even if it’s improving marginally, if they don’t see him focusing on jobs. Right now Democrats and Republicans alike are trapped in a “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop,” because Democrats have decided that they must win back independent voters by projecting a sense of fiscal sobriety and a willingness to pursue bipartisan compromise after two years of racking ambitious but expensive legislative accomplishments supported only by Democrats. They may be right, but as Dems like Sherrod Brown point out, voters don’t hear Dems talking about jobs, and Dems need to change this.

Senator Brown told me the other day that Obama has privately signaled to him that he gets this. Nonetheless, there’s still a big unknown here: It’s unclear what Dems will able to do in terms of job-creation in the current environment; it seems like they’re mostly banking on a turnaround happening of its own accord; and we still don't know what voters will be willing, as Steve puts it, to “put up with.”