No incumbent president since FDR has been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 8 percent. Despite that daunting precedent, an increasing number of political analysts and prominent Democratic Party figures are now bullish about President Obama’s re-election prospects. “Obama’s chances have definitely improved,” former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean recently told me. “If Mitt Romney’s the Republican nominee, I would say it’s a one- or two-point win for Obama.”
Dean also likes his party’s chances at the Congressional level. “I’m predicting flat-out that if Obama wins, Democrats take back the House,” he says. Other analysts have recently raised that possibility, even though GOP domination of the redistricting process gives Republicans a major edge in 2012.
In the wake of last month’s surprisingly strong job numbers, Obama’s re-election prospects have steadily inched upward, from a low of 45 percent in October 2011 to 60 percent today, according to Intrade. Four new polls this month have shown Obama with a five- or six-point lead over Romney, who remains the likely GOP presidential nominee. A Pew poll released yesterday shows Obama up by eight on Romney, his largest lead to date. The president’s approval ratings have also returned to 50 percent for the first time in many moons. In a notable departure from 2010, Democrats now say they are more excited to vote than Republicans.
It’s too soon to know if this is a temporary blip or a more durable boost for the president on his road to re-election. Any number of things could go wrong for Obama—the unemployment rate could spike if the economy slows, Europe’s debt crisis could escalate or there could be a new foreign policy crisis with Iran. As it stands now, Americans by a 2-1 margin still say the United States is headed in the wrong direction (though that’s a big improvement from last summer, when as few as 14 percent of Americans were optimistic about the country’s prospects). The economy is also performing worse in a number of key swing states.
Nate Silver projects that the economy needs to create roughly 150,000 jobs a month for Obama to feel comfortable about his re-election. A recent survey of economists by the Philadelphia Fed forecast an average of 144,000 new jobs per month this year, with the unemployment rate at 8.1 percent by the time of the election. That should make Obama a slight favorite heading into the fall. “The rising tide of consumer optimism directly parallels the upward trend in Obama’s overall job approval rating,” writes Huffington Post polling analyst Mark Blumenthal.