Even as unemployment continues to rise, President Obama's approval rating remains high. This is largely due to the Bush administration and Republicans still receiving most of the blame for current economic conditions, rather than Democrats and the Obama administration. However, if history is any indication, and if current forecasts of continued job loss throughout 2009 followed by a recovery in the second half of 2010 are accurate, we can expect President Obama's approval rating to drop substantially between now and mid-2010, followed by a long, slow recovery afterward.
The best historical analogy for the current political and economic situation is the first three years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. In the early 1980's, a new President, who had won by a wide margin and brought a new party into the White House, also experienced an extreme economic downturn. In fact, the economic downturn of the early 1980's is the only one statistically comparable to our current situation. Since 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics starting keeping records, the only previous months when unemployment was either equal to, or greater than, current levels was a 15 month stretch from May 1982 to July 1983. At the time, the U3 unemployment rate peaked at 10.8% in November and December of 1982, a number that is likely to be equaled by the end of 2009. So, what happened to Reagan is a good point of comparison on what to expect with Obama's approval.
In early June of 1981, Ronald Reagan had an approval rating similar to Barack Obama's current approval. For the first four and a half months of his Presidency, Reagan's average net job approval was +40.86%, very close to Obama's current average of +37.44% (all numbers from Gallup). When job losses began a steady, upward rise in September of 1981, Regan's disapproval also began to rise:
Reagan Disapproval, August 1981-February 1984
National U3 Unemployment Rate, 1981-1984
There was a strong connection between Reagan's rising dispproval rate, and between the rising unemployment rate. Reagan's peak disapproval rate of 56% occurred in January of 1983, just after the November and December peak in unemployment at 10.8%. From that point on, Reagan's disapproval began to drop at roughly the same, slow rate as unemployment dropped. By early 1984, his disapproval had returned to its September 1981 levels, and pretty much stayed there for a long time.
The lesson in these numbers is that Obama's disapproval rating will probably continue to rise during 2009, as unemployment continues to rise and as more time passes from the Bush administration. However, it will not be necessary for unemployment to return to pre-recession levels in order for Obama's disapproval rating to start dropping. Rather, it appears that all Obama will need to affect a positive change in his approval rating will be a drop in unemployment from its peak levels. And, as long as the drop continues, Obama's disapproval rating should continue to drop as well.
As such, if job creation really does start in the second half of 2010, say in July of 2010, it should be a boon to Democratic fortunes in the midterm elections. While Republicans lost 27 House seats in the 1982 mid-term elections, which took place just before peak unemployment, the 2010 midterm election should take place just as the economy is starting to experience job growth. Ideally for Democrats, unemployment would start to decline by February of 2010, which would provide enough time before the elections to recoup whatever losses they would suffer between now and peak unemployment. However, few economists seem to be predicting such an early unemployment peak, so that is a longshot.
After 2010, as long as job growth continues, it is likely that President Obama will have a consistently high approval rating through most of 2011. However, when the stimulus spending runs out near the end of 2011, the loss of that spending in the economy might cause a renewed drop in employment, and thus re-election trouble for Obama in 2012. As such, after a successful 2010 midterm, Democrats should strongly consider either a smaller, second stimulus package, or a modest long-term increase in government spending. Politically speaking, the last thing they need is for employment to peak in late 2011 when no elections are being held...
...and yes, I can see how this analysis appears more concerned with the politics of the economy than with the actual economy. I don't mean to imply that the politics are all we should be concerned wiith. I am just trying to stick to my strengths as a writer, and I am more of a political analyst than an economic one.