In the first quarter of 1992, the year Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush on the message “It’s the economy, stupid,” the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 4.5 percent. On Friday, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that first-quarter growth was just 2.2 percent.
Although many analysts are assuming President Obama will ultimately hang on to the White House this November, the dismal gross domestic product report reminds us he is running for re-election with tremendous economic headwinds. This economy might be weaker than it has been for any pos/world/ War II incumbent facing re-election.
The accompanying table details economic conditions at the comparable point in time for every incumbent president who has sought re-election since 1948, when consistent data were first collected. The growth rate announced Friday is the third-lowest for a president at this point, trailing only those under President Carter, who lost in 1980, and President Eisenhower, who was re-elected in 1956. But in 1956, even though the economy shrunk in the first quarter, unemployment was at just 4.2 percent in March and economic growth had soared in the previous year. By contrast, the current unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, the worst of any March during a re-election year.
To be sure, these numbers are just a snapshot. The first-quarter GDP may still be revised upward, and there’s a long time to go until November. As with any election, there are a lot of moving parts. For instance, in the first quarter of 1976, the economy grew by an astounding 9.4 percent, but this did not save President Ford from high unemployment, inflation and the shadow of Watergate.
Those giving Obama the edge to win re-election are backed by polls that show him with an advantage over Mitt Romney. Obama is tied or ahead in the last nine of 10 polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, and he is leading by 3.3 points in the website’s average. But typically, when a vulnerable incumbent runs for re-election, polls remain close until the very end, when they break one way or the other. In 2004, John Kerry couldn’t seal the deal. In 1980, some polls showed Carter beating Ronald Reagan as late as October. But a week before the election, the two candidates squared off in the debate in which Reagan famously asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Reagan reassured voters who were itching to get rid of Carter that they could trust him with the keys to the White House. He ended up winning by 10 points.
Unless the economy makes significant strides over the next six months, history suggests Obama will have a much harder time winning re-election than the current polls indicate.