Steve Chapman

Candidates for president generally blare recorded rock or country hits before their campaign rallies. At President Obama's appearances, expect a different form of music: whistling in the dark.

Amid grim economic news, Democrats contemplating his re-election bid find two reasons for hope. One is the multitude of weaknesses among the Republican presidential candidates, who might not be able to sell beer on a troop ship.

The other is that bad economic conditions need not be fatal -- as demonstrated by Ronald Reagan, who presided over a serious recession in his first term only to win 49 out of 50 states in 1984. With more than a year to go, the economy has plenty of time to rebound, lifting Obama to victory.

There are only two flaws in this logic. The first is that Obama's economy makes Reagan's look like the end of the rainbow. The second is that it shows no signs of getting appreciably better.

At first glance, Obama's plight may not look so terrible. The unemployment rate in September was 9.1 percent, compared to 9.2 percent in September 1983. But those figures are snapshots that conceal the overall direction of the economy. At this point, Reagan's economy was roaring back to life. Obama's is curled up in the fetal position, whimpering.

In the first quarter of 1983, real gross domestic product grew at a pace of 5.1 percent, rising to 9.3 percent in the second quarter. In the first quarter of 2011, by contrast, the growth rate was 0.4 percent, and in the second, it was 1.3 percent.

The economy has been stuck in neutral not just this year but for a long time. Under Reagan, total output soon regained its pre-recession level. But as of the second quarter of this year, the U.S. economy was still producing less than it was before this latest recession hit in 2007.

That's why it feels as though the recession never ended. In a sense, it is still going on.

This bleak reality shows up in a dearth of jobs that the official unemployment rate doesn't fully capture because it omits people who have given up looking for work. The number of people employed in the United States dropped by 2 million in the Reagan recession. In the Bush-Obama downturn, the number plunged by 8.6 million. Today, it's 7 million below the previous peak.

A lot of Americans no longer show up in the jobless statistics because they have lost all hope. In normal recessions, the proportion of people in the labor force falls a bit and then bounces back. In this one, it went down and stayed down.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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