Where Unemployment Puts Obama Politically

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Walter Shapiro, over at Politics Daily, clearly summarizes the political situation President Obama inhabits, now that the vertiginous economic collapse seems to have slowed, and the long period of economic agony has begun, with continued job losses projected for many months to come. The president still needs to buy himself time with a lot of that commodity he turned into a political brand: hope.

In politics, though, it is hard to get reelected on the slogan, “It Could Have Been So Much Worse.” No president can face increasing jobless numbers and say cheerily, “The good news is that it’s only a terrible recession – and someday we’ll be over it.” That is why the true test of Obama’s electoral mandate is how successfully he weathers the economic doldrums that now seem likely to last until the 2010 congressional campaign season begins in earnest. How long will voters continue to believe that America is on the “right track”?
But hope (both in politics and in everyday life) is a quality that defies neat statistical analysis. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign song was not the mournful “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” but the effervescent “Happy Days Are Here Again.” There was nothing happy about bread lines – and the voters knew it. But part of the art of political leadership is the ability to buy yourself time. That will be the challenge facing Obama as the unemployment rate heads for regions unseen since the days of FDR.