The early outlook for President Obama’s re-election effort

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Like it or not, the 2012 presidential election season is well under way.

With the first Republican primary coming in January — a little more than five months away — candidates already have been raising money, and crisscrossing key early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Heck, the first debate among GOP candidates was held back in early May. And the Republican National Convention, in Tampa, Florida, is just a year away, quickly followed by the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

If the election were held today, President Barack Obama would be in big trouble. His numbers are dismal.

For example, in late July, Gallup put the President’s job rating among Americans at 46 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving. Among likely voters, according to Rasmussen Reports, the President’s job approval breakdown was even worse, with 45 percent approving and 54 percent disapproving.

Put the President up against a generic Republican candidate, and the news remained bad for Mr. Obama. In mid-July, Gallup showed the generic GOPer leading 47 percent to 39 percent. Among likely voters later in July, the generic Republican led Obama by 48 percent to 42 percent, according to Rasmussen.

When matching Obama against prominent Republican candidates, Rasmussen found the President generally holding small leads. However, the Rasmussen Reports analysis pointed out: “But the real story in the numbers is that the president continues to earn between 41 percent and 49 percent of the vote no matter which Republican is mentioned as a potential opponent. This suggests that the race remains a referendum on the incumbent more than anything else.”

Of course, when seeking re-election, it’s always a referendum on the incumbent. And when an incumbent can’t hit the 50 percent mark in the polls, he’s usually in trouble.

Is there any good news to be found for incumbent Obama? Yes, the election is not today. In fact, the November 2012 election is 15 months away, and a lot can happen between now and then.

Consider a little recent presidential campaign history courtesy of Gallup’s website. In late July 1995, President Bill Clinton’s job approval rating was a poor 46 percent, yet he went on to win a second term in 1996.

The opposite story played out four years earlier. In late July 1991, President George H.W. Bush had a stratospheric approval rating of 71 percent. But on election night in November 1992, he lost to Clinton.

The story shifted dramatically for President Ronald Reagan in his re-election bid as well. In late July 1983, his approval rating was a mere 42 percent, yet he went on to a landslide victory in November 1984.

In early August 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s approval rating was a barely detectable 32 percent, and he went on to lose badly to Reagan in 1980. And in early August 1975, President Gerald Ford had a poor approval rating of 45 percent, and eventually lost to Carter.

Will Obama be another Truman, Reagan or Clinton? Or, will he follow the path of defeat, as did Carter and Ford?

That will depend on many factors — including events between now and Election Day — but a critical issue will be the economy.

For Reagan, after four years of serious economic woes, tax cuts and regulatory relief got the economy revved up in 1983 and 1984, with real growth averaging 5.9 percent. And in 1996, Clinton clearly benefited from more than five years of growth, even if it was less than spectacular.

In contrast, Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush suffered at the ballot box due to poor economies. Ford was clueless facing high inflation. The Carter economy combined that high inflation with recession, i.e., stagflation. And Bush’s tax hikes helped produce a recession and subsequent sluggish recovery.

Obama will need to see a dramatic shift from a poor recovery in terms of both economic and employment growth, to an above-average expansion over the coming year-plus. Short of that, the re-election climb for President Obama will become ever steeper.

Raymond J. Keating is the chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, and author of Warrior Monk: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel.