The Economy and 2012

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Tea Partiers, William Daley and David Plouffe, birthers, John Boehner, Sarah Palin, “the professional left” — all will play marginal roles in deciding who wins the next presidential election. But almost nothing is likely to be as decisive as a single number: the unemployment rate. And so today’s signs of continued economic growth, while superficially encouraging, don’t offer much consolation for Barack Obama:

Ben Bernanke:

“It could take four to five more years for the job market to normalize fully,” Mr. Bernanke said, noting that the sector had “improved only modestly at best.”

David Leonhardt:

But the pace of job creation is now only barely fast enough to keep up with population growth. Over the last three months, the economy has added an average of 130,000 jobs a month. If that pace picked up to 200,000 jobs a month, almost 10 years would have to pass before the unemployment rate fell below 6 percent. If the pace picked up to 250,000 a month — roughly what it was in the late 1990s (controlling for population size) — five more years would have to pass.

It is true that Obama’s poll numbers have been more resilient than you might expect for someone presiding over an especially long and painful recession (which may be why even Karl Rove calls Obama the “slight favorite” going into 2012). Still, David Axelrod–not to mention Gene Sperling–will have his work cut out for him.

Update: Matt Dowd, a former pollster for George W. Bush, writes that Obama will need the unemployment rate to drop by about one point–to 8.4 percent–if he’s going to win re-election.