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Why Democrats Have No Time to Waste

The Wall Street Journal’s has had its monthly economic forecasting panel attempt to predict what the unemployment rate will look like through the end of 2010. And the results are something that should make the Administration — and Democrats in Congress — a little nervous. The average forecast for the unemployment rate next December — a year-and-a-half from now — is 9.5 percent. That’s no better than where unemployment is today. And only one economist out of 51 ventured a forecast below 7.6, which is what the unemployment rate was when Obama took office in January.

It’s not that the Journal’s forecasters are all that bearish overall. In fact the panel, which has a notoriously bullish track record, expects to see GDP turn positive quite soon: 70 percent expect the recession to end by the fall, and 90 percent by the end of the year.

The unemployment rate, however, has long been a lagging indicator, especially following recent recessions. Suppose that the recession ends in August. Perhaps six months from then — in February or March — the economy will actually have started to create jobs. But the employment picture will have gotten worse in the meantime; it will be creating jobs from a peak of, say, 9.9 percent if the administration is lucky, or say, 11.2 percent if it isn’t. It will take some time to get the number back down to the 9.5 percent that it’s at presently, much less to fall below the 7.6 percent number that would represent an overall gain of jobs during Obama’s tenure.

The question is: how playable a hand would the Administration have at that point? They’ll probably get some boost when (if?) the recession is declared over. But maybe not much of one. The Persian Gulf Recession officially ended in March 1991; George H.W. Bush was still suffering from the consequences of it 18 months later.

A more favorable precedent, perhaps, is that set by Ronald Reagan. His approval rating hit its trough in February, 1983, a mere three months after the 1981-1982 recession ended. Reagan, more than G.H.W. Bush, could claim to have inherited his recession from the previous administration. Although that recession started in July 1981, half a year into Reagan’s term, it was in some ways a continuation of the January-July 1980 recession that began under Jimmy Carter. In this way, his situation is more analogous to Obama’s, whom nobody can blame Obama for the start of the current recession — although increasing numbers will become frustrated with him that it hasn’t ended yet.

Reagan’s Republicans nevertheless lost 26 seats in the House during the 1982 midterms. That is probably a reasonable over-under for the losses that Obama’s Democrats might suffer. While on the one hand, Obama’s timing may turn out to be somewhat better than Reagan’s, on the other hand Republicans were losing ground from a much lower peak — the only controlled 192 seats in the House before the midterms, whereas Obama’s Democrats now have 257. I’d still take the under given that betting line, mostly because the GOP is poorly organized, both in terms of message and infrastructure. But anything from the Democrats gaining a few seats to losing their hold on the chamber is entirely possible.

The Democrats are in a much more fortunate position, at least, in the Senate, where even after a couple of recruiting coups, the GOP is playing more defense than offense. The over-under there may still even be in positive territory for the Democrats — say a net gain of +/- half a seat. The Democrats are further fortunate that the Senate, not the House, is the legislative bottleneck right now. If hypothetically the Democrats lost 25 seats in the House, which would make their margin 232-203, but added one seat to improve to 61 in the Senate, it’s not clear how much worse off they’d be, particularly if the losses in the House were mostly to conservative, Blue Dog seats.

Still, there is not much time for the Administration to lose in pushing forward the Democratic agenda. The recent sluggishness in the recovery reduces, if not altogether eliminates, the possibility that the Democrats will have some kind of golden window of opportunity prior to the next midterms. Suppose that the recession ends tomorrow, and that the jobs recovery begins sometime around the Holidays. That’s pretty much the best reasonable case for the Democrats. But would you really want to be pushing, say, a climate bill in the summer of 2010, with unemployment still in the high 8’s or low 9’s and an election right around the corner? At that point, the better strategy might be to redouble the efforts to keep as many seats as possible in the House and gain a couple in the Senate.

These next couple of months — the time just before and after the Senate recesses in August — are precious for the Democrats. Sure, they’d probably have an easier go of things if the recession hadn’t gotten quite so deep. But it’s nevertheless likely to be their best time to play offense until the spring of 2011, and possibly much longer than that.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.