It may be the relative direction of the economy, rather than the absolute level of unemployment, that most determines voters perceptions of how a president is doing on pocketbook issues.
If that's the case, Obama's reelection hopes look brighter.
When Reagan was reelected, joblessness was high but had been falling for two full years.
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.