As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Obama's Approval Ratings And Jobs

John Judis has a compelling piece up arguing that the fortunes of Barack Obama relies entirely on the fortunes of the economy, and specifically the jobless rate. Judis shows a direct correlation between the approval ratings of past Presidents and the jobs number.

When Roosevelt took office in 1933, unemployment was almost 25 percent, but, during his first term, it fell steadily-- to less than 14 percent in November 1936. The economy, in other words, seemed to be healing. Gallup wasn't measuring presidential approval then, but FDR's rising popularity was evident in election results: Democrats picked up congressional seats in 1934 and 1936, despite already enjoying huge majorities; and, in 1936, Roosevelt won in a landslide, carrying the Electoral College by the largest margin ever.

The arc of Reagan's popularity illustrates the same phenomenon. In July 1981, when unemployment stood at 7.2 percent--what it had been at the end of Carter's presidency--only 28 percent of Gallup's respondents disapproved of Reagan. But, by January 1983, after unemployment had risen to 10.8 percent the previous month, Reagan's disapproval rating was a whopping 54 percent. In November 1982, even a crippled Democratic Party had been able to win seats in the House and Senate. During the same time, Reagan benefited politically from surviving an assassination attempt, got Congress to approve his signature tax and budget programs, and certainly didn't make egregious political errors. What mattered, finally, was the economy. And, as the economy turned around, so did the GOP's political prospects. By November 1984, unemployment had dropped back to 7.2 percent, and only 30 percent of respondents disapproved of Reagan. In that month's election, he claimed a landslide victory over Walter Mondale.

Today, we see that joblessness has risen under President Obama, and his approval ratings, while still decent, have softened (they've picked back up in recent weeks). The economy may be improving under various statistics, but until people are working again, Obama will not be credited for it. It's hard to argue with Judis' charts. With the exception of goodwill toward Bush 43 after September 11, approval ratings and job loss have followed the same trajectory in most recent years.

Judis offers some thoughts about Obama's options:

So what can Obama do? It's easy to say what would really help: rapid job growth, the revival of the housing market, transit systems that aren't breaking down, the reinstitution of after-school programs, crowded shopping malls and auto showrooms--the kind of things that go with a robust economic recovery. But the U.S. economy isn't going to morph overnight from its current woeful condition to a state of buoyant full employment. In a September 14 speech, Janet Yellen, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, warned of a "tepid" recovery that is "vulnerable to shocks" and an "unemployment rate [that] will remain elevated for a few more years."

What Obama and the Democrats have to hope for, then, is not a full recovery, but sufficient improvement in jobs, wages, and public services to convince voters that the economy is on the mend. That's what helped Roosevelt and Reagan keep their majorities--and, in Roosevelt's case, what lay the basis for nearly four decades of Democratic hegemony. With the Republicans in disarray and demographic trends favoring the Democrats, an uptick in the economy for which voters credit Obama could lay the basis for a new Democratic majority. But, to accomplish this, Obama must promote programs that visibly and immediately provide economic relief.

I think passing a health care bill will give some relief, but with most of the provisions delayed until 2013, this cannot be the end of it all - the political impact of health care may be long-term rather than short-term. Subsequent bills in the end of this year and 2010, job-creating bills, need to be put into effect. The stimulus package has a lot more room to run, with hundreds of billions left to be allocated. This should not only be managed well but expanded, even if it means more deficit spending in the short term.

Moreover, to avoid what marred Roosevelt's second term--the precipitous double-dip in the depression that occurred in 1937–1938--Obama should turn a deaf ear to those who are calling for fiscal responsibility. He should keep pouring money into jobs and into the pockets of people who will spend until the unemployment rate begins going down and wages begin going up. That may mean a second stimulus (despite the current hostility toward spending in Congress) would be worth pushing. He might also be wise to follow Reagan's example and get tough with foreign competitors who are using import barriers, export subsidies, and currency manipulation to inflict large trade deficits on the United States. And, whatever he does to try to mend the economy, Obama should never stop loudly trumpeting his efforts--so that he is able to reap the credit when improvements occur.

In the absence of efforts like this, I shudder to think what will happen, not only to the Democratic majority, which is a lesser concern, but to the landscape of the workplace. Millions and millions of jobs are unlikely to ever be replaced by private industry. And continued joblessness, along with option ARMs recasting, will lead to the higher foreclosure rates we keep seeing, leading to job losses in the construction sector, leading to more risk of foreclosures, leading to more job loss.

People are starting to believe more strongly in the stimulus as a job creation engine. But it's probably going to take more than that to get the kind of tangible recovery needed, not just for Obama and the Democrats, but for the fortunes of regular people.

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