Can Obama win re-election if unemployment stays above 8 percent?

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The most recent budget and economic forecast from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that unemployment will remain high for the foreseeable future. The CBO estimates that unemployment will remain above 9.0 percent through 2011 and drop to 8.2 percent in 2012. “CBO projects that the unemployment rate will gradually fall in the near term, to 9.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, 8.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, and 7.4 percent at the end of 2013.” Unemployment is not expected to return to “normal” or around 5.3 percent until 2016.

Can President Obama win reelection in 2012 if the rate of unemployment stays above 8 percent? There are a number of social factors that can predict who will turn out to vote such as education, income, class, race, age and gender. Other attitudinal factors such as voter’s perceptions about the characteristics of the candidates, evaluations of government performance, and the condition of the economy can be effective predictors in the short-term of why individuals will support or not support a particular candidate.

There’s a lot of polling data that can be used to support just about any position one chooses to take. Looking at some simple numbers may be helpful. According to the Rasmussen Daily Presidential Tracking Poll, 35 percent of Americans now rate their own finances as good or excellent. That’s the same as when President Obama took office. Most voters (52 percent) continue to blame George W Bush for the nation’s economic woes while just 37 percent blame President Obama.

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Even though his Presidential Approval Index rating is -6 (31 percent of the nation’s voters Strongly Approve of the way that Barack Obama is performing his role as president while 37 percent Strongly Disapprove), overall, 50 percent of voters say they at least somewhat approve of the president’s performance. Forty-eight percent (48 percent) disapprove. History indicates that all incumbent presidents since Harry Truman who sought re-election and had an approval rating above 50 percent won.

For as bad as the CBO estimates for unemployment are, the forecasted economic outlook does get better not worse. “CBO expects that economic growth will remain moderate this year and next….That forecast reflects CBO’s expectation of continued strong growth in business investment, improvements in both residential investment and net exports, and modest increases in consumer spending.” If economic trends were the only factors being considered, this projected trend bodes well for the president’s future.

The CBO report also stated, “Payroll employment, which declined by 7.3 million during the recent recession, gained a mere 70,000 jobs (or 0.06 percent), on net, between June 2009 and December 2010…. As the recovery continues, the economy will add roughly 2.5 million jobs per year over the 2011-2016 period, CBO estimates.” Job creation is slower than in past recessions (By contrast, in the first 18 months of past recoveries, employment rose by an average of 4.4 percent.) but again, it is trending in the positive direction.
It’s also important to note that not only is unemployment trending in the right direction but, according to the Wall Street Journal, since Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up about 48 percent, the S&P 500 Index is up 60 percent and the tech-focused Nasdaq Composite Index is up 90 percent. Not bad business numbers for a “socialist” leaning president.

Predicting the political future requires more than tea leaves, a crystal ball, and good polling data. Other factors such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration, health care, and political opponents will play an important role in the 2012 outcome.

Currently, the Republicans have no clear front runner and appear to be in disarray. According to Albert Hunt in Bloomberg Businessweek, “For more than four decades, at this stage, Republicans had either an incumbent president or an established front-runner who goes on to win the nomination. There is no such figure today, making the race more wide open.”

Catering to Tea Party supporters with their antipathy toward establishment Republicans will also play an important role in the Republican nominating process possibly forcing the party further to the right.

The Obama administration must take the lead and regain control of the narrative, define its focus, and addresses the fears and concerns of the American people. Stimulating job growth, domestic economic stability, and stability in Afghanistan should be at the top of the list. The State of the Union address was a step in the right direction.

As it stands right now, in spite of the current unemployment rate of 9.4 percent and projections of high unemployment rates through 2012, President Obama can win re-election in 2012. Continued economic growth, slow as it may be, should push President Obama’s approval numbers over 50 percent.

Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer/ Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon,” and a Teaching Associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Go to or email:

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