The limited value of recent history

Updated
 
He's already made history once.
He's already made history once.
Associated Press

I’ve seen several pieces in recent days, some from writers whose work I often enjoy, making the same argument: President Obama has to “defy history” to win re-election because the economy is in such rough shape.

Here, for example, is Jeff Greenfield:

[I]t’s with that skepticism in mind that I offer, not a prediction, but a flat pre-election assessment: If President Barack Obama is to win, he is going to have to overcome a set of numbers that no incumbent President, or incumbent party, has ever managed to surmount.

The jobless rate has been stuck at just above 8 per cent for months; you have to go back to 1936 to find a President re-elected with a higher unemployment rate.

Chris Cillizza made a similar point:

Mitt Romney should win the presidential election this November. While that may seem, on its face, like a somewhat controversial idea, consider the following:

The unemployment rate has been over eight percent for 42 straight months, a streak unparalleled in American history. No post-World War II president has ever been reelected with unemployment over 7.2 percent – meaning that if President Obama wins, he will be making history.

Derek Thompson published several charts from a variety of sources, all of which measure American economic performance under Obama against other presidential administrations dating back to Truman. Not surprisingly, Obama doesn’t fare well under the comparisons.

There’s nothing factually wrong with any of these analyses, or the others like them that have been published recently. In recent generations, incumbent presidents who run for re-election and won have invariably enjoyed more favorable economic conditions than Obama. Indeed, nearly every recent piece I’ve seen about Obama needing to “defy history” references the presidents “since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

The problem with these analyses is appreciating what separates Obama from his modern predecessors, or more to the point, what Obama and FDR have in common.

In 1936, Roosevelt sought re-election despite 17% unemployment. One can imagine Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, and the Koch brothers running attack ads, reminding Americans that unemployment has been “above 17% for 48 consecutive months” as incontrovertible proof that the New Deal was a “failure.”

But on Election Day, FDR won 46 out of 48 states. How could an incumbent president win re-election with an unemployment rate at 17%? Because voters realized the Great Depression wasn’t Roosevelt’s fault, and the economy was getting better, not worse.

Seventy six years later, President Obama is in a tough fight because unemployment is stuck at 8.25%. Is this high for a modern incumbent president? Obviously it is. But here’s the detail I think much of the political establishment fails to appreciate: the Great Recession was a catastrophic economic crisis, unlike anything Americans have seen since the Great Depression.

When pundits compare Obama’s economic record against every president since Truman, they’re making a fundamental mistake – no administration was forced to confront a crash of this magnitude since FDR. Comparing Obama to the last 11 presidents is, at its root, deeply misguided.

Indeed, I don’t think the political world has fully come to grips with the severity of the crisis in late 2008. This wasn’t just another recession. It wasn’t just a cyclical downturn. It wasn’t a slowdown caused by interest rates or a dot-com bubble. It was an international breakdown of the global financial system – and it not only takes longer to recover from such a crash, the effects of the catastrophe linger.

The nation is still burdened by high unemployment four years after the disaster? Of course the nation is still burdened by high unemployment four years after the disaster. This recovery isn’t as robust as other modern recoveries? Of course this recovery isn’t as robust – other modern recoveries didn’t have as far to go to make up ground. (They also didn’t have mass public-sector layoffs undermining growth, along with the worst Congress ever.)

As I explained a while back, no president since FDR has won with an unemployment rate this high because no president since FDR has had to govern at a time of a global economic crisis like the Great Depression or the Great Recession.

To draw comparisons without this context is to take an incomplete look at the facts.

Barack Obama

The limited value of recent history

Updated