A butterfly effect
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In American history, only 12 presidents failed to get re-elected to a second term. Over the last century, the number is a modest three — Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — when counting out Gerald Ford, who succeeded to the presidency after Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal. In his latest book “The Future After Covid,” futurist and economic expert Jason Schenker found three common features of the three who did not get second terms. One was that the unemployment rate was higher at the time of the presidential election than around the time of mid-term elections.
An unemployment rate that hovered at 3.2 percent during the midterm election in late 1930 shot up to 16.9 percent two years later when Hoover was campaigning for a second term. Carter too saw the jobless rate jump from 5.9 percent during the midterm election to 7.5 percent by the time of the presidential election two years later. For Bush, the rate went up from 6.2 percent to 7.3 percent and he was defeated by Bill Clinton, whose 1992 campaign had an internal mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Economics are key to U.S. presidential elections. The unemployment rate is pivotal, according to Schenker. He considers the likelihood of Trump winning a second term to be low because of a surge in unemployment. The jobless rate was exceptionally low at 3.2 percent in November 2018 when the midterm election was held. But the unexpected Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the mood.
Due to lockdowns to contain the virus, the unemployment rate in the United States soared to 14.7 percent in April. The figure fell to 13.3 percent in May, but there is scant possibility it will soon come down to the levels of two years ago. Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, predicted the jobless rate to fall under 10 percent by year-end through a V-shaped recovery. Still, Trump would be entering the campaign with an unemployment rate more than triple from the level around the midterm elections.
The United States became the worst victim of Covid-19, with 120,000 deaths and 2.16 million infected. A second wave is feared as social restrictions were lifted to normalize business activities. It does not seem that a vaccine or cure for Covid-19 will be discovered before the election. The ongoing riots and demonstrations for “Black Lives Matter” following the death of George Floyd also bode badly for Trump. Soldiers have begun to show defiance to the administration. Trump has turned touchier as polls showed a widening gap with rival Joe Biden. His campaign team sent a cease-and-desist letter to CNN calling its poll showing Biden in a 14-point lead over Trump “fake news.” The White House has become that anxious.
Across the Pacific, Pyongyang must have been closely following the developments in U.S. politics. Its return to belligerence toward Seoul must stem from the conclusion that it can turn the tide in its favor by capitalizing on Trump’s anxiety. For North Korea’s part, it has earned nothing since the first summit with the United States in Singapore in 2018. Seoul cannot do anything unless Washington makes a move first. North Korea must have decided to provoke South Korea to gain attention from Trump and draw a hasty reaction from him.
North Korea is expected to ratchet up tensions until Trump reacts. If it takes a military action, South Korea inevitably would have to respond. A tit-for-tat action is the norm. The circumstances could build up to a warlike situation. Such a crisis on the Korean Peninsula poses another blow to the Trump campaign. He could bargain to make a deal for the cause of preventing a war.
If not for Trump, a top-down U.S.-North summit is impossible. If Biden moves into the White House, a big deal between Pyongyang and Washington would no longer be an option. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is provoking the United States because he is well aware of that. He must have left the job of saber-rattling towards Seoul to his sister Kim Yo-jong to keep himself ready for a landmark deal with Trump.
President Moon Jae-in keeps mum in the face of malicious insults and provocations from Pyongyang. Seoul’s role has diminished since the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi collapse ignominiously. Moon has only two options — strongly advising Kim to exercise restraint and declaring an unwavering alliance with Uncle Sam on North Korean affairs. Trump’s actions ahead of the election could bring about a butterfly effect on the Korean Peninsula.