In 1984, President Ronald Reagan won re-election in a landslide, telling voters that it was "morning in America."
Unfortunately for President Barack Obama, the American economy has been stuck at midnight for years.
It's a simple story. Americans don't have jobs, so they're not buying stuff. Because they're not buying stuff, companies aren't hiring. Unemployment remains above 9 percent. The recession was worse than economists thought, which means that the 2009 stimulus bill wasn't enough to jump-start the economy. Not only is Congress not doing anything to solve the jobs crisis; Republicans -- with little resistance from the president -- are actively pursuing a contractionary fiscal policy that is weakening a sluggish recovery. If economic prospects remain bleak, come November 2012, President Obama may learn what it feels like to be unemployed.
"Anemic economic growth suggests some serious challenges for Obama," says John Sides, a political-science professor at George Washington University. "The only possible silver lining for him is that growth in the year before the election is still the most important predictor [of election outcomes], so he still has time."
Reagan's approval ratings took a dive during his first term because of rising unemployment. In the last year before he was re-elected, growth picked up, helping him defeat Democratic Nominee Walter Mondale. But there are no signs that Obama will benefit from similar conditions over the next year given the severity of the recession and the lack of pro-growth action by Congress.
"At this point Reagan had similarly mediocre performance numbers," says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist who teaches at Dartmouth College. "None of the factors, as best we can tell, are looking like we're going to get that kind of a bounce back. It would be shocking."
Economists aren't predicting any miracles. "Even if you imagine a lot of things going the right way, it's hard to imagine the unemployment rate going below 9 percent given where we are today," says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "It's certainly not impossible to imagine bad news; you can envision stories where the unemployment rate starts to creep up again."
Political scientists emphasize that unemployment is often a lagging indicator and that gross domestic product growth and disposable-income growth are better indicators of presidential election outcomes. But the current employment situation is unusually severe, and that in and of itself may constitute an additional negative factor for Obama.
"The kind of unemployment that we're experiencing now, which is continued high levels of unemployment, combined with chronic long-term unemployment, is really unique," Sides says. "So given that, you could argue that it's premature to rule out the level of unemployment in a factor in this election."
Most of the cuts in the debt-ceiling deal are back-loaded, so they may not significantly impact Obama's re-election chances. But according to Chad Stone, chief economist for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the deal certainly won't help the recovery. "[The deal] is a modest hit to GDP in an economy that's already facing substantial headwinds from the fact that the Fed's not doing anything more, from the fact that the Recovery Act measures have expired," Stone says.
Douglass Hibbs, a political economist whose "bread and peace" model assumes that the two most important factors for determining election outcomes are disposable income growth and the level of casualties in American wars abroad, emphasizes that Obama's re-election is in peril barring "idiosyncratic factors."
"The dead girl or the live boy, those kinds of things," Hibbs says. "A Palin-Bachmann ticket would probably do it for the Democrats. It would be suicide for the Republican Party, but stuff happens." Nyhan calls this "nirvana" for pundits -- an election so close that for once, the marginal factors will start to matter.
Democrats shouldn't bank on Republicans' nominating someone who is too radical to win. Poll after poll shows Republicans care more about electability than ideological orthodoxy, and the party's decision to nominate John McCain in 2008 shows it can be more pragmatic than its most high-profile talk-radio personalities. Most likely, Republicans will nominate someone like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney or Texas Governor Rick Perry -- both of whom could effectively hammer Obama on the economy.
"Chronic levels of unemployment are what's generating a lot of the economic pessimism, and it's something the Republican candidate is going to be able to harp on if it hasn't changed [by election time]," Sides explains. "That kind of message is going to resonate with what people already think, and the most effective campaign messages typically do that to begin with."
Portraying himself as "the adult in the room," as Obama did during the debt-ceiling negotiations, won't trump a bad economy. "The fundamentals are the fundamentals," Hibbs shrugs. "If the economy catches hold, and we catch those 4 or 5 percent growth rates in a row, Obama will be okay. But he's not going to win big. It's not going to be anything like the McCain defeat."
Grim forecasts aside, Obama has two important advantages: He retains levels of base approval higher than presidents facing bad economies usually do, and many Americans still blame Bush for the recession. Come election time, though, voters may simply decide that even if the recession isn't Obama's fault, he still failed to get us out of it. The presidency is not graded on a curve. Even assuming Republican intransigence and obstruction have given Obama the most challenging political landscape ever for a Democratic president, what matters is whether voters feel like he did what he was elected to do: Bring the American economy back from the brink.
"Voters can be especially responsive to growth right before an election," says Nyhan. "It's certainly possible, even if you have poor economic performance, to get lucky and have good growth in your election year."
Luck, unfortunately, isn't much of a plan.