When George H. W. Bush lost in 1992, unemployment had barely begun to edge down after a recession the year before. When Gerald Ford lost in 1976, the jobless rate was falling for about a year and half. Another big factor in that vote: Americans were disillusioned with Washington after the Watergate scandal, and outsider Jimmy Carter promised change.
Obama can point to more than two years of decline in the jobless rate, with more than nine months still to go before the election. (Unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009.)
At the same time, what's distinctive is the depth of the recession from which the nation is still recovering. It was the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The president chose his words carefully earlier this week in a State of the Union speech that was, as much as anything, an official launching point for his year-long campaign. "The state of our Union is getting stronger," he said, acknowledging the financial stress millions of Americans feel but pointing to progress in job creation and factory-floor expansion.
“The President did not cause the economic and fiscal crises that continue in America tonight," Governor Daniels said. "But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse: the percentage of Americans with a job is at the lowest in decades."
It's true that the number of employed Americans, as a percentage of all working-age people, so far hasn't begun to revive significantly from the devastating impact of the recession. The population is growing, and unemployment has fallen in part because of people finding new jobs, and partly because so many people aren't even looking for work.