The 2012 presidential election is less than a year away, but we still can't be sure what it will be about.
Just 19 percent of Americans tell NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters that the country is headed in the right direction; 73 percent say it's on the wrong track. It's a decent bet that if this election is a referendum on the past four years, President Obama won't get a second term. On the other hand, if the Republican presidential nomination process produces a standard-bearer who sets up a stark choice between two contrasting ideologies and visions for the country, the picture gets more problematic. Maybe Republicans will win a choice election, or maybe they won't. It would certainly be a more interesting fight than a simple referendum on the president.
Fifty-seven percent of the respondents in the NBC/WSJ poll, conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, say they disapprove of the job Obama has done in handling the economy. Just 40 percent approve of his economic performance. So it's a good bet that if the election is about the economy, Obama will lose.
The October jobs report showed unemployment at 9 percent. Putting that into historical context, from January 1948 when Harry Truman was president, through the end of George W. Bush's presidency, unemployment was 9 percent or worse in a total of just 20 months. In contrast, 28 of the past 30 months have registered rates at or above 9 percent. During Obama's presidency, the unemployment rate has been under that 9 mark in only the four months of January through April 2009 and in February and March of this year.
Unquestionably, Obama didn't create this problem. The economy was terrible and worsening when he came into office. But by the time a president is seeking reelection, for better or worse, he owns the economy. If it is doing well, he gets the credit, deserved or not. If it's doing badly, he gets blamed, warranted or not.
Democrats and President Obama's defenders can say with some justification that Republicans have been obstructionists. They have prevented him from implementing his agenda. But in the first two-years of his term, when Democrats had substantial majorities in the House and Senate, much of the focus was aimed at health care and climate change, complicating the Democrats' message.
The October unemployment number was one-tenth of a point better than the September rate of 9.1 percent. That is still significantly higher than the highest post-Depression unemployment level that a president has been reelected with, Ronald Reagan's 7.2 percent in 1984. The November Blue Chip Economic Indicators consensus forecast, from a survey of 54 top economists, suggests that unemployment will be 9 percent for calendar year 2012. The forecast also indicates that joblessness will be 8.9 percent for third and fourth quarters of next year, just a tenth of a point better than today. The average for the 10 most optimistic economists surveyed suggested an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent for the third quarter and 8.3 percent for the fourth. The 10 most pessimistic predicted 9.5 percent for the third quarter and 9.4 percent in the fourth.
Obama was certainly dealt a bad hand, but many critics say he could have played it better.
It's hard to see how this election is not about the economy. But events could, briefly or for a longer time, shift the focus elsewhere. Just think about the news of the past week. The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday reported "serious concerns" about "possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program." This was after a weekend of media speculation in Israel of a possible military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Indeed, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak explicitly left the military option on the table.
Could a conflagration in the Middle East, particularly one adjacent to the world's most vital oil routes, shift American voters' attention away from their economic ills? Of course it could. One does not have to dwell on conspiracy theories and "October surprises" to consider other issues that might shift the agenda and alter what today seems to be the trajectory of next year's general election.