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It's Not Always the Economy Stupid

10/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democratic Presidential contender Barack Obama jumped all over the economy in a two minute nationally paid campaign broadcast billed as a "presidential style" talk to the nation. There wasn't much new in his talk. He again vowed to cut taxes for the middle-class, clean up Wall Street's mess, and create lots of jobs for everybody. Obama aimed at firmly seizing back the high ground on the one issue that supposedly is his sure fire ticket to the White House, and that's economic misery, Bush-GOP caused economic misery that is. It's a play on the old political truism, it's the economy stupid that wins or loses presidential elections.

From day one of the campaign the enshrined article of political faith has been that voters are so furious at Bush for causing massive plant closings, farm failures, corporate bungling, fraud and corruption, the housing collapse, soaring gas prices, and the wholesale flight of jobs to the far corners of the planet, that all a Democratic presidential contender had to do to win was pass the breath test on Election Day. It's not that simple. It's not always the economy that makes or breaks presidents. In a look at how six of eight presidents fared since 1948 when the economy hit the skids or appeared to skid, the scorecard for presidents winning and losing because of economic woe is a draw. Three were beaten and three beat back their challengers. It came down to whether voters really perceived that their economic plight, pain if you will, would show no sign of a cure if they kept the incumbent in office.

Both Republican and Democratic presidents won and lost even when there was widespread public unease over the economy and many voters believed things wouldn't get any better. The presidents who won had to do one crucial thing in the face of rising unemployment, recession, inflation, and public grumbles. They had to assure a majority of voters that things would and could get better with them if they stayed in the White House and their opponent couldn't do any better.

That combination of real and voter perceived economic woe helped sink Presidents Gerald Ford and Bush Sr. It helped and hurt Carter. It helped when the economy went bad for Ford in 1976 allowing Carter to win a narrow victory over Ford. The trick is that voters have to perceive things will get worse in which case the challenger to a sitting president has to reinforce public dread that things will indeed get worse.

Four years later, when the economy went bad for Carter, Reagan won in a near landslide. The exact reverse was true for Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan's supply side economics and big tax cuts were credited with igniting a mid-1980s economic boom. Clinton's tax hike, deficit reduction program, and investment stimulus program, was credited with turning a record deficit into a record surplus and adding millions of new jobs to the rolls.

As Reagan's vice president, Bush Sr. benefited from his economic policies. In 1988, he won the election. Four years later, when things turned sour he lost. The more important thing is not just a bad economy but at what point the economy turns bad in the life of the administration, and the public perception that things will get better or worse. The downturn for Bush Sr. came during the last two years of his term. Voters are much more likely to blame and punish a president if they go to the polls with economic doubts fresh in their minds.

Bush Sr.'s history then did not repeat itself with Bush Jr. in the 2004 election. Even though unemployment was high, and economic growth, as Democrats gleefully noted, was slower than during Clinton's second term, the Clinton bar was impossibly high to match anyway. By all economic standards, his economic track record was the best of any of the last five presidents. Even by his inflated standard, and despite the industrial erosion in some sections of the country, during the last two years of Bush's first term, overall unemployment and economic growth still slightly improved.

This was the powerful spur that Bush used to spin news, even bad economic news, as a gain. He solemnly pledged there would be more economic goodies for voters if he was reelected. If the economic negatives had hit harder in his last two years, as it did with his father, it would have been Democratic presidential John Kerry's ticket to the White House.

Things though seem to have gotten worse in the twilight hours of the Bush presidency. And Obama will hammer that point home. But McCain will try to do the same. If he can create enough doubt about who's really to blame, and that he can convince a big bloc of voters that he can reverse the economic free fall as well as Obama, the election again may not be about the economy stupid.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).