This week, President Obama changed his campaign strategy. He is now touting his economic record more forcefully. "We were losing 800,000 jobs a month," Obama said on Wednesday in Athens, Ohio. "Now we've added more than 5 million new jobs, more manufacturing jobs than any time since the 1990s. The unemployment rate has fallen from 10 percent to 7.8 percent. Foreclosures are at their lowest in five years. Home values are on the rise. Stock market has doubled. Manufacturing is coming back. Assembly lines are putting folks back to work. That's what we've been fighting for. Those are the promises I've kept."
BuzzFeed's Zeke Miller highlighted this new emphasis in a piece headlined "Obama Discovers Morning in America." It begins, "President Barack Obama is finding his inner Ronald Reagan." This strategy is unlikely to work for Obama because the facts don't support his claims. When Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, his famous "Morning in America" ad, touting the national recovery, worked so well because its truth was evident to all. Reagan's felt no need to bombard voters with statistics. But here's one worth noting: At the time Reagan ran his ad in 1984, unemployment had fallen from its peak of 10.8 percent to 7.3 percent in less than two years. Under Obama, progress has been slower and less emphatic. Unemployment now stands at 7.8 percent, three years after peaking at 10 percent.
But unemployment numbers in isolation don't tell the full story because they can go down just because people drop out of the work force or accept part-time jobs out of necessity. Reagan's economy created a net 4.3 million jobs from February 1981 through September 1984. Obama's economy has lost 61,000 jobs over the comparable time period. This number is even more striking when one considers that the U.S. population is nearly 80 million larger than it was in 1984.
Another significant factor is economic growth. In the 14th quarter of Obama's presidency, which ended in June, the economy grew at an anemic 1.3 percent rate. (This is the most recent quarter for which data are available.) In the comparable quarter of the Reagan presidency, the economy was growing by an astounding 7.1 percent. It's also important to keep in mind that when Reagan was elected over Jimmy Carter, inflation was a massive problem, skyrocketing to 12.5 percent in 1980. By 1984, it had shrunk to 3.9 percent. Obama never even had to deal with this problem.
Obama doesn't need to match Reagan's 49-state landslide to get re-elected. He may be able to squeak through with a narrow victory merely by convincing Americans that there has been some economic improvement. But this kind of sales pitch takes time, and it's hard to make an argument that everything is getting better with just a few weeks left in the election, especially when most Americans believe they're not. When Obama boasts about his economic record, he runs the risk of seeming out of touch with the struggles still facing the middle class. And if unemployment ticks upward in the final report due out the Friday before Election Day, his new strategy will blow up in his face. He's taking a big risk with small odds of success.