He will try to win re-election while likely saddled with a higher unemployment rate than any other president seeking a second term in 76 years.

Mr. Obama undoubtedly would prefer to forgo that distinction, but there is no escaping the harsh economic backdrop that will mark the campaign of 2012. The economic malaise sets the stage for a presidential contest that analysts in both parties expect to be very close, and a much tougher haul for the president than his election in 2008, when he became the first Democrat in 32 years to win a majority of the national vote.

Most presidential elections turn on the economy, but that figures to be especially true this time. Recent weeks have brought a few, tentative signs that the nation’s bleak jobs picture may be improving, which would certainly help the president. Still, the unemployment rate stands at an unhealthy 8.6%, and few analysts think it will drop fast enough to reach the 7.4% rate that prevailed when Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984, or even the 7.5% when Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980. Not since Franklin Roosevelt won re-election in 1936 has a president faced a worse jobless situation.

Unemployment, the economic statistic that packs the most political punch, has risen to 8.6% now from 7.8% the month Mr. Obama took office. It topped 10% briefly in 2009.

The misery index—the combination of the unemployment and inflation rates—has risen to about 12 now from 7.83 when he took office.

Median family income fell in the first two years of the Obama term, after rising the previous four years.

Whatever unhappiness exists with Mr. Obama’s economic record, there is ample reason to think Republicans are even less popular. Just over 40% of Americans have an unfavorable view of the president, but 48% hold an unfavorable view of Republicans. And when Americans are asked which party is better at dealing with the economy, the two parties are rated about evenly.

Moreover, none of the Republicans jockeying for the right to run against Mr. Obama next year is exactly soaring in public esteem. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now one of the two front-runners for the GOP nomination, is popular among his party’s conservatives, but gets low ratings among the kinds of independent swing voters who tend to decide national elections. His main opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, does better among independent voters but isn’t particularly popular among his own party’s conservatives.

Taken together, all these forces suggest that a close election lies ahead. Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who heads Public Opinion Strategies, says there is a “core coalition of voters” who already have decided that they won’t vote for Mr. Obama again, including Southerners and traditionally Democratic blue-collar workers. On the other hand, he notes, his own party’s candidates “are not in particularly good shape in terms of overall standing with the country.”

If that sounds like a formula for a tight finish after a campaign that isn’t particularly uplifting—well, that’s precisely the kind of forecast most political pros are offering.

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