How dangerous is unemployment for Obama?

Why high unemployment is not a barrier to the US President's re-election.

Today's New York Times notes:

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.

With this in mind, the latest employment figures make grim reading for Barack Obama. After a week that has seen renewed talk of a double-dip recession, the US Department of Labor today announced that unemployment rose unexpectedly to 9.1 per cent, from 9 per cent a month earlier, with only 54,000 net new jobs added, well below the 150,000 that had been forecast. There's now no chance of unemployment falling below 7.2 per cent before November 2012.

So, how worried should Obama be? It all depends on context. As Steve Benen notes at the Washington Monthly, FDR was able to win a second term because unemployment was falling, not rising. When Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936, unemployment stood at 17 per cent but this was still down from 22 per cent in 1934 and 25 per cent in 1932. The public were satisfied because the figures were moving in the right direction. Similarly, as the NYT points out: "Ronald Reagan won, despite 7.2 percent unemployment in November 1984, because the rate was falling and voters decided he was fixing the problem."

Thus, Obama's challenge is to reduce unemployment to a level that voters, given the global economic context, are willing to tolerate. The Roosevelt precedent suggests that this could be significantly higher than 7.2 per cent.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Sadiq Khan gives Jeremy Corbyn's supporters a lesson on power

The London mayor doused the Labour conference with cold electoral truths. 

There was just one message that Sadiq Khan wanted Labour to take from his conference speech: we need to be “in power”. The party’s most senior elected politician hammered this theme as relentlessly as his “son of a bus driver” line. His obsessive emphasis on “power” (used 38 times) showed how far he fears his party is from office and how misguided he believes Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are.

Khan arrived on stage to a presidential-style video lauding his mayoral victory (a privilege normally reserved for the leader). But rather than delivering a self-congratulatory speech, he doused the conference with cold electoral truths. With the biggest personal mandate of any British politician in history, he was uniquely placed to do so.

“Labour is not in power in the place that we can have the biggest impact on our country: in parliament,” he lamented. It was a stern rebuke to those who regard the street, rather than the ballot box, as the principal vehicle of change.

Corbyn was mentioned just once, as Khan, who endorsed Owen Smith, acknowledged that “the leadership of our party has now been decided” (“I congratulate Jeremy on his clear victory”). But he was a ghostly presence for the rest of the speech, with Khan declaring “Labour out of power will never ever be good enough”. Though Corbyn joined the standing ovation at the end, he sat motionless during several of the applause lines.

If Khan’s “power” message was the stick, his policy programme was the carrot. Only in office, he said, could Labour tackle the housing crisis, air pollution, gender inequality and hate crime. He spoke hopefully of "winning the mayoral elections next year in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham", providing further models of campaigning success. 

Khan peroration was his most daring passage: “It’s time to put Labour back in power. It's time for a Labour government. A Labour Prime Minister in Downing Street. A Labour Cabinet. Labour values put into action.” The mayor has already stated that he does not believe Corbyn can fulfil this duty. The question left hanging was whether it would fall to Khan himself to answer the call. If, as he fears, Labour drifts ever further from power, his lustre will only grow.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.