FDR, Reagan and Obama Won Re-Election With More Than 7% Unemployment. Amid Coronavirus, Could Trump?

The latest jobs report released by the Labor Department Friday—the first since the novel coronavirus spread throughout the United States—painted a bleak picture.

The unemployment rate rose from the near 50-year low of 3.5 percent to 4.4 percent with the economy losing 701,000 jobs, the largest over-the-month increase since January 1975, according to the agency. The number of unemployed people rose by 1.4 million to 7.1 million.

The true number of jobless Americans is undoubtedly much higher, as the March jobs report only includes the first two weeks. March's last two weeks saw a record of at least 10 million people file for unemployment benefits, the ramifications of which won't be truly known until next month's report.

"Unemployment reached 25 percent at the depth of the Great Depression. We are in for a depression greater than in the 1930s," Michael Reich, an economics professor specializing in labor and politics at the University of California at Berkeley, told Newsweek. "I expect that unemployment, now already above 10 million, could increase to 40 million in the next several months."

The coronavirus pandemic has ushered American politics and its economy into uncharted territory at a breakneck pace. Social distancing guidelines have forced economic downturn in an attempt to stop the spread, and economists warn that the country is possibly headed to a place far darker than the Great Depression.

With primaries being canceled and efforts turning to vote-by-mail for the general election, the bleak jobs picture amid the coronavirus pandemic begs the question: Is this public health crisis likely to impact the polls in November?

Donald Trump win re-election amid high unemployment
President Donald Trump speaks from the press briefing room with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force April 1 in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

If history has anything to say about the correlation between politics and unemployment rates, it's that the higher the jobless rate, the less likely an incumbent president is to win re-election. Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush lost with unemployment rates topping 7 percent.

But Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama—who presided over the Great Depression and the Great Recession, respectively—along with Ronald Reagan, managed to win second terms, despite jobless rates north of 7 percent.

To be sure, no one knows for certain whether President Donald Trump will be re-elected or whether voters will opt for someone new, given the infinite number of variables: when will social distancing be relaxed? When will restaurants and non-essential businesses be allowed to re-open? The longer restrictions remain in place, the more arduous recovery will be.

"The longer the disruption, the more people are going to be extremely cautious when coming back and exposing themselves to risk," Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless told Newsweek. "A lot of employers will have entered bankruptcy and not be in a good position to restart."

And perhaps equally important a factor, Republican and Democratic strategists suggest, is how Trump weathers the storm in the months to come. His approval rating has gone up slightly to tie his all-time high of around 46 percent, the same as when he first took office. But most Americans say they don't trust the information they receive from Trump, and he's been ridiculed as downplaying the severity of the virus from the onset while making inaccurate or false statements.

"This election is gonna be completely about the coronavirus pandemic. It will be the defining issue of this election: how the president responded and the economic impact," Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis told Newsweek. "At the end of the day, it will be a referendum on the president's ability to handle such an historic crisis. To date, I'd say [he's] less than stellar."

trump win re-election high unemployment rate
President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden after introducing a new point-of-care COVID-19 test kit developed by Abbott Labs at the White House on March 30, 2020, in Washington, D.C. The United States has updated its guidelines to U.S. citizens to maintain current social distancing practices through the end of April after the number of reported coronavirus (COVID-19) deaths doubled to over 2,000 nationwide within two days. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

It's not only about how Trump works to curb the spread and rebuild the economy, Kofinis argued. It's also about how Democrats handle the situation. The party would be shooting itself in the foot and falling into a "trap," as Kofinis described it, if partisan politics are injected into the midst of a public health crisis.

"The president is going to rise and fall based on his actions. We are going to rise and fall based on what we are proposing to make peoples' lives better through this crisis," he said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden—whose sizeable delegate lead over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has led many to consider him the presumptive nominee—has laid out his own plan and offered the president public suggestions. He's gone so far as to say he's willing to speak with Trump privately to offer advice, which the White House has signaled they're open to.

"He should deploy the Defense Production Act for all the things needed: gloves, masks, face shields, gowns, etc.," Biden told reporters Thursday on a call. Shortly after, Trump announced that he'd be using the wartime act to force private companies to begin producing ventilators and masks. "That should be done yesterday, last week, a month ago," Biden added. "Get it done, now."

can trump win re-election high unemployment rate
Vice President Joe Biden holds a virtual campaign event on March 13 in Chicago, Illinois. The scheduled in-person Illinois campaign event was changed to a virtual event because of fears of COVID-19. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

Throughout his presidency, Trump has touted economic indicators like a record-high stock market and low unemployment rates as proof his tenure is responsible for a boom. His critics argue the strong economy before the pandemic was thanks to his predecessor. But the grim jobs market that's suddenly appeared poses a major problem for the president, said GOP strategist Susan Del Percio.

"Frankly, that's the one thing he had going for him," she told Newsweek. "This country was divided, but you couldn't take away the economy. Now, he's not going to have that to run on, and that's going to be very difficult."

Del Percio contended that Trump has already set an unofficial, yet poor goal for the administration to use in the wake of the crisis to gauge how well they handled it. At a daily coronavirus briefing at the White House this week, the country's top doctors unveiled a chart predicting the U.S. death toll will range from 100,000 to 240,000 people.

"The economy will still matter. But they've now set the bar with what to expect," said Del Percio. "If we're over that number, we didn't do as well as we should've. And if we're under, we did a better job."

"This is a horrible, horrible, horrible thing to use as a measurement," she added.

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