Not Just a Number

Updated
 
Not Just a Number
Not Just a Number

By NBC’s David Murphy

An election year reminder: Watch the jobless rate trends, not just the number.

In October of 1980, Ronald Reagan asked Americans: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  When it came to unemployment, the numbers showed that they weren’t – but  it was close.  The September jobless rate, released in the first week of October, was 7.5%, just a tick below the 7.6% rate from September of 1976.  Nevertheless, it was enough for voters to deny Jimmy Carter’s bid for a second term and put Reagan in office.  Ironically, the unemployment rate was almost exactly the same when Reagan ran for re-election four years later.  The report from September of 1984 showed a rate of 7.3%.  However, that was far off the high of 10.8% at the end of 1982.  For Americans that re-elected Reagan overwhelmingly, apparently the trend was more important than the final number and it helped put Reagan back in the White House. 

 

Not Just a Number

Eight years later, George H.W. Bush found out that the trend can work against you as well.  As he neared the end of his re-election campaign, the jobs report from September of 1992 showed an unemployment rate of 7.6%.  But that was far worse than it had been over the first two years of Bush’s presidency when the rate had never risen above 6%.  Bill Clinton hammered the sitting President for failing to ease the recession that was gripping the country and turned it into a winning message. 

 

Not Just a Number

Bill Clinton had no such troubles while running for re-election in 1996.  Clinton and his successor, George W. Bush, were beneficiaries of September unemployment rates of 5.2% and 5.4% respectively, helping pave the way for second terms.  President Obama is now facing a 7.8% unemployment rate.  That kind of number spelled doom for many of his predecessors.  But the President can take comfort in the fact that when it’s compared to a high of 10% during the depths of the recession, 7.8% just might be good enough.

Not Just a Number

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