Obama Advisers Looking for Wrong Lessons

07/21/2011 04:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011
  • Brendan Nyhan Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College

According to New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, President Obama's advisers are seeking inspiration from the campaigns of presidents who were re-elected despite increased unemployment:

Mr. Obama's advisers, meanwhile, are looking for lessons from re-election bids that overcame a first-term rise in unemployment, like those of George W. Bush, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans all. That's a turnabout from the Obama team's initial plan to base its re-election campaign on the economy's progress since 2008.

The problem for Obama is that the first terms of the three presidents in question (Bush 43, Nixon, and Eisenhower) produced reasonable income growth, which is a better predictor of presidential election outcomes than unemployment. Consider this modified plot from Douglas Hibbs, whose Bread and Peace model employs a weighted measure of real disposable personal income growth -- the presidents in question are highlighted in green:


Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush 43 all presided over at least moderate income growth during their first four years in office; Obama so far has not. (The same applies for GDP growth, another frequently used variable in forecasting models.) Unless the state of the economy improves, it's not likely to matter who he models his 2012 campaign after.