An Unexpected Boost for Obama on Jobs

If current trends continue, Obama could enjoy an economic tailwind on Election Day.

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Could President Obama be a "job creator"?

That buzzphrase has been the Republicans' way of referring to business owners who are supposedly hamstrung by overregulation and outdated economic policies that Obama has pursued over the last three years, including the controversial stimulus program from 2009. Obama himself is a "job killer" in the argot of leading Republicans like Mitt Romney and John Boehner. But Obama may have some persuasive facts at hand to help refute that claim come Election Day.

[See 11 companies on the edge in 2012.]

The latest unemployment report was modestly better than expected, with 200,000 new jobs added to the economy and a slight drop in the unemployment rate, to 8.5 percent. For once there was no need for caveats explaining that the seemingly good news actually masked more troubling signs deeper in the numbers. The economy has now added jobs every month since September 2010, and the pace of job gains appears to be accelerating. After many fits and starts, in other words, the economy may finally be strengthening in earnest.

There's almost no plausible scenario in which an Obama re-election in November would be a shoo-in. The unemployment rate on Election Day will probably still be above 8 percent, which would make Obama, if re-elected, the only president since the Depression to win a second term with such a high jobless rate. Housing will still be a mess and many middle-class Americans will feel they're worse off than they were four years earlier.

But if current trends continue, Obama will have some upbeat news to run on. The economy has already added about 2.7 million jobs since employment bottomed out at the beginning of 2010. If the economy keeps adding 200,000 jobs per month, on average, it would mean another 2 million new jobs by the time Election Day rolls around. That would allow Obama to say—accurately—that under his stewardship, the economy has added nearly 5 million new jobs over the last two years.

[See 3 scenarios for the economy on Election Day.]

That could all happen with the unemployment rate going up, not down, as discouraged workers who had given up finding a job re-enter the workforce, creating a bigger pool of people technically counted as unemployed. Conventional wisdom holds that no president can get re-elected with such a high unemployment rate, no matter what else is happening. But this could be yet another rule of thumb proven obsolete by the dramatically changing economy.

Voters on Election Day will probably be much more influenced by whether they feel their own fortunes are improving than they will by the number that represents the unemployment rate. When Ronald Reagan got re-elected in 1984, the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, then a record-high for a post-Depression president winning a second term. But the economy had been adding jobs for 20 straight months at that point, which created a tangible sense of things getting better. If the current string of job gains continues, Obama will have 26 straight months of job gains behind him, besting Reagan's run.

There's still a lot that could go wrong for Obama. Many economists expect a pullback in consumer spending in 2012, because spending in 2011 rose faster than income, which means shoppers used their credit cards more and drew down their savings. As they become more frugal in 2012, that's likely to slow the overall economy. A financial meltdown in Europe remains possible and could throw the U.S. economy back into recession. A showdown with Iran could cause an oil spike that pushes gas prices above $4 per gallon. And unforeseen shocks are always a possibility.

[See why shoppers will pull back in 2012.]

But we might finally be seeing a modest recovery that can sustain itself, without any more blood transfusions from the Federal Reserve or temporary subsidies from Congress. At least that's how Obama is likely to portray it. Voters, increasingly, may agree.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success , to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman

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