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Can Voters Forgive Obama?

It’s the economy, stupid. The conventional wisdom is that Barack Obama’s re-election chances hinge on the state of the economy. While some of my readers are already convinced for some reason that Obama is an unimaginably bad president, most Americans have more mixed feelings toward him. But there’s one area—an area that is generally said to be key to a president’s chances of re-election—where nearly everyone agrees that things have been bad during his presidency: the economy.

Gallup’s latest polls find that 73% of Americans think that economic conditions are getting worse, not better. That means substantially more Americans think the economy is getting worse now than at any time since the very beginning of Obama’s presidency. Not surprisingly, Obama’s approval rating has been hovering around just 42% since the boost he got after announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden wore off over the summer. His job approval now is probably not a good indicator of what it will be like a year from now, after a year of campaigning. And if the economy does improve, his approval rating is certainly likely to go up. But 42% would probably be too low a number for Obama to get re-elected today. It’s going to have to be closer to 50% by the time the election rolls around if Obama is to have a chance.

Nevertheless, in spite of the bad economy, Obama has a good chance of winning another term. Investors at the political futures market Intrade still gives Obama about even odds of getting re-elected. It’s not just that Republican voters are apparently so unenthusiastic about Mitt Romney, who in spite of Newt Gingrich’s recent surge remains the likely Republican nominee because of his relative lack of negatives. It’s that the evidence is the economy is not as decisive a factor as conventional wisdom holds.

There’s no question the fact that unemployment is still around 9% makes it hard for Obama to win. As I wrote a few months ago, it’s true that no president since WWII has won re-election with unemployment higher than 7.5%—that’s how high unemployment was when Reagan was re-elected in 1984—but we have a relatively small sample of presidents to draw conclusions from.FDR won re-election in 1936 with unemployment at almost 17%.

The key question will be whether voters think the bad economy is Obama’s fault, and why who's to blame for the economy will be the focal point of the presidential election. While it may be reasonable to hold Obama accountable for the state of the economy after four years in office, Obama will try to make the case that the previous administration is to blame for the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and that he has done all he could in the face of both an increasingly dysfunctional Congress and Republican opposition. 

Voters may be open to hearing that case. Obama seems to shoulder less of the blame for the weak economy than other actors. While Obama’s approval rating is low, Congress is even less popular, with a record-low approval rating of just 13%. Moreover, a recent Quinnipiac poll finds that while 69% of Americans disapprove of the way Democrats in Congress are doing their job, 75% disapprove of the way Republicans in Congress are doing their job. By those standards, Obama is actually relatively popular.

Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Prominent political scientist Larry Bartels has found that income growth in a the first year of a president’s term is negatively correlated with his party’s chance of in the next presidential election. In other words, the worse the economy during a president’s first year in office, the better his (or his party’s) chances of winning another term. Bartels isn't sure what explains the correlation. But the effect is that voters seem to evaluate the president’s economic record not on the basis of where the economy stands when he comes up for re-election, but relative to the economic headwinds he faces in his first year. If that's true, it’s fantastic news for Obama and the Democrats. After all, 2009 was a terrible year. Relative to 2009, the economy is improving. Obama hasn't managed to fix the economy. But there's a chance that voters may forgive him.

Photo: Pete Souza

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