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President Barack Obama greets a young fairgoer at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines in August. (DAMON WINTER/NYT)
President Barack Obama greets a young fairgoer at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines in August. (DAMON WINTER/NYT)

Globe editorial

Household formation and the triumph of optimism Add to ...

President Barack Obama’s election victory on Tuesday – although not by a large margin of the popular vote – is not typical for an incumbent, when unemployment is high and the economy fragile. Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 were all defeated in such circumstances (not to mention Herbert Hoover, among earlier presidents).

There may, however, be a sense among the citizens of the United States that the economy is getting better – slowly, but noticeably. That could help explain Mr. Obama’s re-election in hard times.

Most voters are not much impressed by official statistics or by commentaries from economists. But some statistics may well correspond to the lived experiences of large numbers of people.

For example, confidence can be expressed quite concretely by a couple’s decision to form a household of their own. The U.S. Census Bureau has found that, as of September, 1.15 million new households have been formed, over the previous 12 months. That is close to double the average rate over four years after the financial crash.

During recessions and depressions, many households may merge, the typical case being young people who move back in with parents. A report by the Pew Research Center has confirmed that this was widespread in the past few years. Last month, an article in The Atlantic Magazine hypothesized that this trend could soon reverse itself. The Census Bureau now agrees.

The recent household-formation change in the U.S. was mostly brought about by new renters, but there is some recovery in the number of people buying homes for themselves, too.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan was re-elected, although the unemployment rate was above 7 per cent, as it is now. But, even apart from Mr. Reagan’s gift at communicating optimism (greater, surely, than Mr. Obama’s “audacity of hope”), the unemployment rate had been declining for a couple of years – evidently long enough for the electorate to observe the phenomenon for themselves.

Unemployment has been only inching downwards during the latter part of Mr. Obama’s first term, but it is quite likely that many Americans are noticing some progress – enough for him to be allowed to stay in the White House.

If expectations are rising in the United States, that may or may not mean that people are attributing their somewhat improved sense of well-being to Mr. Obama’s actions. At any rate, a feeling of encouragement probably helped rescue the President from the ignominy of defeat.

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