The last time the unemployment rate was this low, the Beatles were still together. Woodstock was right around the corner. There was a new President named Richard Nixon and Donald Trump was just a recent college grad.
That’s how long it’s been.
The unemployment rate was at or under 4%, as it is now, from December of 1965 until January of 1970, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was a pivotal time in US history – but now it is not remembered for the unemployment rate.
They were not quiet years. Those were the years in which Medicare was passed into law and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. They also saw most of the US casualties in Vietnam. Things were so bad that Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to run for reelection in 1968, which ultimately led to violence at the Democratic convention that year and gave Nixon an opening to return from his political wilderness.
So what’s the lesson?
“A good economy is not the be-all and end-all to elections,” said Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer, asked about the 1960s vs. today. “That was a period when the economy was still doing very well – even better than today in many ways.”
Today there is no war like Vietnam, although Trump does his best to make things seem uncertain with his trade wars and his tweets and his complaints about the Russia investigation. But there is vigorous debate about social change and progress, particularly for minorities and women.
Americans have time to focus on those efforts, perhaps, because they’re not looking for work.
“A good economy can create expectations for social movement politics,” said Zelizer. “In the 1960s, the strong economy gave support to civil rights movement, with demands that African Americans be included in the growing middle class; it produced more educated young people who were the heart of movement politics with the war; and it gave support to ideas like fighting poverty, since the country could afford to do so.”
Fast forward 50 years and a lot of the change that started in the ‘60s feels unfinished, particularly to Democrats talking about economic inequality even as, according to the data over which economists obsess, everyone who wants a job has one and that the economy continues to grow.
The unemployment rate was 3.6% in April and annualized GDP growth was over 4% for the first quarter of the year.
Trump’s argument is things are going really well
Trump should be the beneficiary of all this good economic news. But he has seen his approval ratings on the economy pop up even if his general approval ratings hang below 50%.
His chief of staff this week said it doesn’t really matter how voters feel about Trump, they’ll give him another four years in the White House if it means sitting pretty like they are now.
“You hate to sound like a cliche, but are you better off than you were four years ago? It’s pretty simple, right? ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I think that’s easy,” Mick Mulvaney told an audience at the Milken Conference in Los Angeles. “People will vote for somebody they don’t like if they think it’s good for them.”
And by some pretty objective standards that won’t make your eyes glaze over, people are sitting pretty.
Most people in the country just got a tax cut, even if some people in mostly blue states didn’t realize it at the time because their tax refunds were lower.
Contentedness with the economy extends nationwide if you drill down into the most recent CNN data. Seventy-three percent of Americans generally in the South said the economy was good or somewhat good. That matched 71% of Northeasterners and only a slightly lower percentage (69%) of Westerners and Midwesterners, which includes several of the key Rust Belt states.
If the economy is to carry Trump to a second term, it will be in spite of the divisions he has spread in the country, said Timothy Naftali, a professor at NYU and former director of the Nixon presidential library.
“Certainly there have been times where the economy is strong, but the country is stressed because of a foreign policy challenge, as in the case of Vietnam,” Naftali said. “In this case, we’re not stressed by a foreign policy problem; I would argue it’s the nature of the President himself, who is creating stresses. If Donald Trump were a unifier, I would think the public would be much more behind him given the strength of the economy.”
A time for transformation?
It is not at all clear there is enough pressure to create change today. Democrats have seized on the issue of inequality and some, particularly Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, progressives running for the Democratic presidential nomination, have argued the fact of the good economy is exactly the reason to transform US society.
“I’ve spent my career getting to the bottom of why America’s promise works for some families, but others who work just as hard slip through the cracks into disaster,” Warren said in her campaign announcement video.
She and Sanders have proposed sweeping reforms to remake the health care and education systems and create a stronger safety net with the country’s wealth. Trump and Republicans are already painting these ideas as socialism.
Arguing the government should do more is certainly in stark contrast to Republicans, who will point to their permanent tax cuts for corporations as evidence that giving more to business can help the economy.
But that may not even ultimately be a debate Americans have in 2020. Only 13% in the most recent monthly Gallup survey said the economy is the most important issue, down from more than 80% at points during the financial crisis. To the extent the economy affects voters, it may be a lack of economic urgency.
Joe Biden, the former vice president and current Democratic front-runner, entered the race last month without mentioning the economy in his kickoff video. He wanted to focus entirely on Trump’s rhetoric and white nationalists and argue Trump is changing the moral fabric of the country.
Plus, Trump has shown an innate ability to distract Americans from the news that benefits him, such as his preoccupation with the Russia investigation, his divisive insistence that a wall be built on the southern border or that the Affordable Care Act be repealed.
These issues may ultimately be more important to voters.
“The point is the good economic news does help an incumbent, but other problems, policies and challenges can undercut that advantage,” Zelizer said. “Whereas in 1968 it was a war in Southeast Asia, today it is a political war over the meaning of this presidency.”
And sometimes there’s nothing to explain what happens. By November 1972, the unemployment rate was over 5% and had been for more than two years. The country already knew a lot about Watergate. It didn’t matter. Nixon, promising to end the war he’d prolonged, won in a landslide.