Can Obama win with high unemployment?

The numbers were not good – only 54,000 new jobs in May, compared with an average of 182,000 per month earlier this year – and unemployment increased slightly, to 9.1 percent.

The figures underline the fragility of the U.S. economy’s recovery. The hopes from earlier this year that the economy was firmly on the upswing got a knock. The Republicans got new ammunition in their criticism of the president’s economic policies. Concern rose in the White House and among the Democrats looking ahead to next year’s election.

Can a president with such high unemployment rates be reelected? That question has been debated vigorously in recent days after an article in The New York Times that stated that not since Franklin Roosevelt’s days has a president been reelected with unemployment at over 7.2 percent.

This was not the case with Roosevelt himself, of course. He was reelected in 1936 with an unemployment rate of 16.6 percent, and in 1940 with 14.6 percent unemployed. However, Roosevelt was able to point to falling unemployment figures from when he first stepped into the White House, in 1933, when unemployment was at 19.8 percent. President Obama cannot do that. When he entered the White House, in January 2009, unemployment was 7.8 percent.

With that in mind, things do not look good for President Obama, as Nate Silver points out in his excellent blog, FiveThirtyEight.com. He adds that the unemployment rate is not the only thing that determines an American presidential election, although the higher the rate the less likely Obama will win.

Daily Beasts political commentator Michael Tomasky does not contest Nate Silver’s conclusions, but he adds that Richard Nixon won in 1972 even though unemployment had risen by almost 2 percent during his first four years, and thanks to the fact that the Democrats that year went a little “cuckoo.” Obama may next year benefit from a large dose of “Republican Crazy”.

These Republicans have their own problems with putting together a strong team to oppose Obama in 2012. So far, one must say that they have failed, and polls support that. Asked in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center to describe the candidates with a single word, 44 percent responded by calling them “unimpressive.”

That might be a bit of consolation for Obama and the Democrats in these somber economic times.

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