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Leading indicators

I know I'm a broken record about this stuff but, well, here's Joe Klein:

If Obama is not reelected, it will be because he comes across as disdaining what he does for a living. I don't think he thinks of it that way, but you watch someone with a real love of the game -- Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell, Mississippi's Haley Barbour (and, of course, William Jefferson Clinton) -- and you can tell the difference immediately. The most important leading indicator of a one-term presidency in my lifetime has been indifference on the stump. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were fine men, but diffident, tone-deaf pols. (Bush managed to get elected only because Michael Dukakis was even worse at it than he was; ditto for Carter and Gerald Ford.)

Just for the record, in 1980, the year Jimmy Carter lost, GDP contracted by 0.3 percent. In 1992, when George H.W. Bush lost, we were coming off a 0.2 percent contraction from the 1991 recession, and Ross Perot was running around. I'm not here to argue that Bush or Carter were great campaigners or that their political mistakes didn't cost them anything. But at one point, both of them were considered pretty good campaigners (good enough to land the presidency, at least), and then they got a reputation as terrible campaigners after they tried to run a reelection campaign against the headwinds of serious recessions. I don't know of any recent presidents who have turned in impressive performances in those conditions. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all ran for reelection amidst roaring economies.

Which is all to say that the leading indicator of a one-term president seems to be a bad economy during the presidential campaign. Maybe a truly great campaigner could get around that, but I don't know of anyone who has done it in the last 50 years. And for all the talk of FDR's midterm performance in 1932, GDP grew by more than 10 percent that year.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 30, 2010; 6:11 PM ET
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Someone should comment about this. "Just for the record, in 1980, the year Jimmy Carter lost"...

Posted by: rmgregory | August 30, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

"Someone should comment about this. 'Just for the record, in 1980, the year Jimmy Carter lost'..."

Not until after Labor Day?

Posted by: tuber | August 30, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

Umm. The economy was not exactly roaring when GW Bush was reelected. That was one reason he barely squeaked by. You forgot to mention that the economy was starting an oil shock downturn during the 2000 election.

Posted by: bakho | August 30, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

"Umm. The economy was not exactly roaring when GW Bush was reelected."

Really? GDP growth had averaged 3.7% over the six quarters prior to the election. Unemployment had fallen from 6.3% in June 2003 to 5.4% in September 2004 (I'm not sure the October numbers were out yet), and payrolls were rising.

In the run up to the 1996 election, GDP growth had averaged 3.4% during the prior six quarters, and unemployment was 5.2% during September 1996.

Clinton and Dubya each went into their re-election bids with roughly equal economic situations in terms of growth and unemployment. Now, Dubya's boom ultimately turned out to be based on a credit bubble (to some extent Clinton's was as well) but at the time people thought it was real.

"You forgot to mention that the economy was starting an oil shock downturn during the 2000 election."

Unemployment was 3.9% during the 2000 election, and the previous six quarters had seen average GDP growth of 4.2% (4.15% for the previous two). I don't think there was much economic discontent in the fall of 2000. That's about as much as a boom as you're gonna get.

Posted by: justin84 | August 30, 2010 8:59 PM | Report abuse

No matter how much of a political genius FDR was, he had to wait till 1934 for his first midterm election.

Posted by: Rob_ | August 30, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

I don't think there's a thinking person on earth who wouldn't rather have a beer with Obama than with some jerk from Mississippi.

Posted by: leoklein | August 30, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

The state of the economy and in particular the umemployment rate, i.e. the awful jobs market, actually is a direct result of the lack of enegagment that Joe Klein brings up.

Sure the stimulus has kept the recession from being worse. But it wasn't big enough to make it better...Better enough so people feel the economy is on the upswing. Better enough that the sideways motion we're in now would have been an upward motion. That isn't going to happen because the stimulus wasn't big enough,

His lack of interest and engagement, his diffidence, his lack of partisan passion is why the economy is doing so badly. He gave up fighting to make it significantly better many months ago.

So yes there are economic headwinds....but Barack Obama had a significant hand in that because he did nothing to ameliorate strength of those headwinds.

Posted by: debcoop1 | August 31, 2010 12:02 AM | Report abuse

I must's not that he did nothing. He did too little, which to the general public at large, feels like he did nothing.

When you are swinging for the high trapeze bars...50% of the way there isn't means you fall to the ground

Posted by: debcoop1 | August 31, 2010 12:05 AM | Report abuse

"But at one point, both of them were considered pretty good campaigners"

GHWB was never considered a good campaigner, much less a pretty good campaigner. He was the VP of a popular President, and had the good fortune to run against a schmuck in 1988.

Posted by: ostap666 | August 31, 2010 8:41 AM | Report abuse

maybe a poor economy makes incombents into diffident campaigners

Posted by: bdballard | August 31, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

"I know I'm a broken record about this stuff"

It's tempting to make a Hubert reference here... but if you haven't read "Making Money" by Terry Pratchett, it probably wouldn't translate.

Posted by: jes7 | August 31, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Don't you mean FDR's mid-term performance in '34, not '32?

By the way, check out how fast the US economy recovered thanks to lots of government deficit spending in the 1930s. Woo hoo. Take that you Austrian school acolytes.

Until FDR followed the arguments of deficit hawks after '36 and curtailed government expenditures, (pushing America into a double dip recession and prolonged the GD), America's economy was growing like gangbusters.

If economic growth and employment are important to getting the US out of the worst recession since the GD, we have to slay this fraudulent fear of "runaway spending" by simply SPENDING what it takes to get the economy moving again. It worked for FDR.

Posted by: gregw571 | August 31, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

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