When evaluating President Obama’s -- or a Republican challenger’s -- chances in 2012 relative to the jobless rate, history is instructive.
No American president since WWII has been reelected with unemployment as high as it is today. In fact, no presidential election has taken place since WWII with unemployment as high as it is today.
The highest unemployment rate in November of a presidential year was in 1976, when it was 7.8%. Jimmy Carter was elected then, but lost reelection four years later when unemployment remained at similar rate of 7.5%. Unemployment during Carter’s presidency dropped to as low as 5.6% in May 1979, but it ballooned more than two points in a year and a half.
Unemployment so far under President Obama tracks more closely the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The jobless rate continued to climb to half a century highs during the first two years of Reagan’s presidency. In November and December 1982, right after the midterm elections in which Republicans saw double-digit losses, unemployment hit a record high of 10.8%. But it began to consistently drop beginning in January 1983, something Obama and his supporters hope will also happen in 2011. Today, unemployment is 9.8%, the highest since June 1983.
By December 1983, unemployment dropped two-and-a-half percentage points from that 10.8% high to 8.3%. By November 1984, it was 7.2%, and Reagan won in a landslide. The jobless rate continued to drop during Reagan’s second term to as low as 5.3% before again rising to as high as 7.8% in June 1992, five months before Bill Clinton -- whose campaign famously used the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid” -- was elected.
Currently President Obama's approval rating is actually higher than Reagan's was at the same time, but unemployment is likely going to have to come down for the president to follow in Reagan's footsteps.
Unemployment in presidential years