The September jobs report is in, and for the first time in the Obama presidency, unemployment has dipped below 8 percent. By one measure 114,000 new jobs were added, with employment gains for July and August revised upwards, as well. The jobless rate of 7.8 percent has not been this low since January 2009, the same month Barack Obama took office. It peaked at more than 10 percent at this time in 2009.
That makes 24 consecutive months of job growth since October 2010. That beats the alternative, which the nation experienced with a vengeance between November 2008 and February 2010, 16 months when America hemorrhaged jobs, ultimately losing some 8.8 million of them during the recession in all. Some 5 million jobs have been added back since then.
After a disappointing debate performance, the White House no doubt welcomes the news. For Republicans trying to unseat the current occupant, well, not so much.
Numbers are easy to manipulate, of course, no more so than in an election year, and predictably the spin doctors are out in full, fresh scrubs.
For Romney fans, well, this news isn’t as good as it could be or should be or would be if their guy was in charge. As the candidate himself noted, “This is not what a real recovery looks like.” It’s true, the economy is sluggish and job growth has been barely keeping up or falling below population gain and the number of young people entering the job market. That said, it’s also a little easier now that the recession is in the rearview mirror to discount its severity; with any luck, most of us will not see its like again in our lifetimes.
Republicans did not hesitate to point out that the number of manufacturing jobs fell by about 16,000 in September. In 2012 so far, job growth has averaged 143,000 a month, about 10,000 below 2011’s monthly performance. As always, the unemployment figures do not count those who have given up and stopped looking.
It’s also true that many of the new jobs are just part-time and are held by people - about 8.6 million total, some 6 percent of the work force - who would much rather be toiling full-time. Some critics have noted that this reflects holiday hiring, though one trusts that is more of a November-December thing than a September phenomenon. If anything the opposite may be true, as traditionally September shows a significant decline in seasonal hiring, mostly owing to the number of 20- to 24-year-olds leaving summer jobs to return to school. That did not happen this time.
Some folks - specifically former General Electric CEO Jack Welch - even accused Labor Department economists of cooking the books. “These Chicago guys will do anything ... can’t debate so change numbers,” Welch wrote on Twitter. He provided no evidence of that, and these government economists are not political appointees, but that’s the world of slander and conspiracy theory in which we live. If you’re going to make the allegation, then pony up the proof, or shut up.
Page 2 of 2 - To its credit, the Obama camp was reserved in its response, again emphasizing, as the president himself did on Wednesday night, that “there is more work that remains to be done.” No president since World War II has won re-election with unemployment this high. Obviously, they know that. Still, better to be improving than not.
From this vantage, any president’s impact on an economy as large and diverse and complex as America’s is exaggerated, for better or worse. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop chief executives from taking credit when the economy is clicking or invoking the point made above when it’s not. These are not exactly precise numbers. The 114,000 figure is based on a survey of businesses, while a Labor Department gauge of households produced a much larger number, some 873,000 more jobs, which led to the statistical drop in overall unemployment. The margins of error are significant. It is wise to be wary of month-to-month blips. There will be one more of these employment reports before Election Day.
In any case, polling has shown that conservatives have tended to be much more pessimistic toward the economy than liberals, and businesses more so than consumers. The former express concerns about the so-called “fiscal cliff” that is looming, with tax hikes and budget cuts triggered in Washington if Congress can’t get its act together, which may be more likely than not. The unpredictability of health care costs also is a factor.
But there are other economic markers, too. On the flip side, the stock market is up. Home prices have stabilized. Average worker earnings rose slightly last month, up seven cents to $23.58 an hour.
Ultimately, as one labor economist told the New York Times, “The economy seems since the recovery began to have three gears ... slow, idle and reverse. It’s stuck in slow. We don’t have a gear faster than slow.” Given the experience of the last five years, given the situation in Europe, slow will suffice, for now. Now, more Americans appear to be working than have in a while. That’s a good thing, no matter how you spin it.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.