By Alexander Bolton - 04/07/12 12:00 PM EDT
Democrats say the political prognosis for President Obama is much better than it was at the same point in former President Jimmy Carter's first term, even though the pace of the nation's job growth has slowed.
Obama was set back Friday by disappointing jobs numbers but the economy still created jobs at a faster pace than under Carter or former President George H.W. Bush, two of only four presidents to lose re-elections in the last 100 years.
Obama’s three-month average for 2012 is also better than the job growth former President George W. Bush saw when he was re-elected in 2004.
The economy is creating more jobs than it did in 2000, when former Vice President Al Gore (D-Tenn.) fumbled the handoff of the White House from Clinton, or 2004 when George W. Bush held off a strong challenge from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
But jobs are not growing as fast as 1988, when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush successfully ran on Reagan’s economic record, or 1996, when Clinton won a second White-House term. Bush and Clinton won easily in those years.
While many political experts predicted this year’s presidential election would come down to the economy, the middling nature of the recovery signals that campaign tactics and the candidates’ performances may prove more decisive.
“The expectations of his situation are that the economy is going to be good enough that Obama can win but not so good that he’s going to have an easy re-election,” said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at the University of California and director of UC’s Washington Center. “It’s sufficiently ambiguous that Republicans can envision [the economy] as a winning issue for them.
“When the structural conditions are like that, the amount of money, the quality of the candidate and the guts of the campaign mean a lot more,” he added.
The economy created 110,000 nonfarm jobs in March, compared to 240,000 in February and 275,000 in January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On average, jobs increased by 0.16 percent per month, considerably better than the 10-month average before the 1980 and 1992 elections.
The nation’s labor force grew by an average of 0.075 percent a month during the10 months leading up to the 1980 general election, according to survey data of employers kept on file by BLS.
Carter’s political hopes were killed by dismal jobs reports in April, May, June and July of that year, a span in which the economy shed 1.16 million jobs. Strong jobs reports in August and October made up for the losses but fell short of saving Carter’s presidency.
Political experts say Obama is in a much stronger position than Carter, the only Democratic president to lose re-election in more than 120 years.
“The situation was totally different. Interest rates were in the ionosphere, 14 percent and 16 percent to finance various projects. Carter had a difficult term in dealing with his own party. The thing that was the dagger that went into his political heart was the botched hostage rescue in Iran,” said former Sen. Richard Byran (D-Nev.), who was serving as attorney general of Nevada before winning election to Congress.
Republican strategists say the unemployment rate is not the only salient statistic in this election year. They argue Obama will be hurt by rising prices as Carter was by inflation more than thirty years ago.
“If your benchmark is Jimmy Carter, you are headed for the front of the one-term presidents pack,” said Sean Spicer, communications director the Republican National Committee. “Look at healthcare costs, college tuition costs, energy costs, groceries. Everything that matters is headed in the wrong direction.”
Democratic strategists say Obama does not need to get the unemployment rate down to a specific number to win as long as voters see steady improvement.
“The president’s in much better shape than President Carter, whom I worked for a long time ago,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who worked as a young staffer on Carter’s campaign. “Inflation was astronomical and malaise had set into the country. Americans were held hostage in Iran.
“The present situation is diametrically opposite,” Devine added. “It’s been 25 consecutive months of private sector job growth.”
George H.W. Bush endured even worse jobs numbers than Carter during the ten-month stretch leading to his 1992 loss. The economy suffered a net loss of jobs in only one month, February. But the job creation in other months was anemic. Only 267,000 jobs were created January, March, June, July and September, cumulatively. The workforce increased by an average of 0.0738 percent.
Obama’s burden is the national unemployment rate is higher this year than it was in 1992 and 1980. A Labor Department survey of households reported the national unemployment rate at 8.2 percent in March. It was 8.3 percent in January and February.
The nation’s unemployment rate averaged 7.5 percent in the ten months before the 1992 election and 7.1 percent in 1980.
Obama inherited a much worse economy than Bush senior, who took control of the White House when the unemployment rate was 5.4 percent. Carter took office when the rate was 7.5 percent, the same as it was in November of 1980. It was 7.8 percent when Obama swore his oath of office in January of 2009.
Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who served as senior advisor to Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said Obama will win if the economy continues to show improvement. But he warned that the climb to victory would be much tougher if the economy shows mixed signals.
“People aren’t expecting you to be at 3.9 percent unemployment. They want to get a sense that things are turning around,” he said. “So long as data is out there that things are beginning to turn around in the right direction, he wins. If the data is inconsistent, it’s a much bigger challenge.”