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New Jobless Numbers: Another Bad Month, Another Challenge for Obama

4 years ago
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The dismal June unemployment numbers are a reminder that sometimes the economy is governed by the gravitational principle: That which is down, stays down – even with a stimulus.

Not only did the jobless rate inch up to 9.5 percent (underscoring that May's jump to 9.4 percent was a dire omen of the coming double-digit distress), but the economy also shed 467,000 jobs. That sobering statistic -- which was 135,000 worse than in May -- destroyed a comforting White House talking point that the job-loss figures had been improving each month since January.
Beneath the numbers is the stark face of human misery. More than 4 million Americans – nearly one-third of the unemployed – have been out of work for more than six months. That is akin to the entire population of South Carolina (every adult, every child and even its hard-working governor) actively searching and failing to find a job since before Christmas.
A debate is raging over how much Barack Obama and his policies are to blame for what is fast becoming the Greatest Recession Ever. (My colleague Carl Cannon's view is a bit harsher than my own.) But the national polls consistently show that a majority of voters are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, coincidentally released just minutes after the unemployment report, found that 58 percent of Americans support Obama's "overall economic plan." Other national surveys have consistently found, since Obama's inauguration, that roughly half the voters believe that the nation is "heading in the right direction" – a startling vote of confidence given the economic climate.
The Obama White House is braced for the outcry when the unemployment rate (a traditional lagging indicator of economic recovery) crosses the 10 percent frontier and probably tops the post-Depression record of 10.4 percent during the first two months of 1983. Nothing radiates turn around quite like the cheerful graphics and upbeat headlines ("Better Health Care for American Indians and Alaska Natives") on the administration's Web site Recovery.gov, designed to chart the progress of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan. Perhaps the most significant statistic on the Web site was a chart showing that through June 19 only $53 billion in recovery money had been paid out. As Obama said during his June 23 press conference, "I don't feel satisfied with the progress that we've made. We've got to get the Recovery Act money out faster."
But a new Time magazine cover story by Michael Scherer captures the tension between speed and scrutiny of the spending. Joe Biden is quoted urging mayors in a conference call not to squander the stimulus money: "It's so important you make sure -- don't get mad at me -- that there are no water parks, golf courses or anything that doesn't pass not only the test of the law but the smell test. Because we've got to do this thing really well." But in short-run economic terms, it probably does not matter whether a federally funded project for, say, the John Edwards Reputation Water Slide can be ridiculed on Fox News. Water parks and golf courses create jobs too. But all the checks on wasteful (or potentially politically embarrassing) spending slow the pace of cashing the stimulus checks.
In an interview with the Associated Press, after the new unemployment numbers were announced, Obama pointed out that since the inauguration, "We have successfully stabilized the financial markets." Bland words like "successfully stabilized" are not normally associated with marching bands and 76 trombones. But about the time that Obama took office, there was a frightening possibility that the world financial system would completely collapse and the American economy would retract to a few hardy traders exchanging clamshells. As top presidential economic adviser Larry Summers put it in a recent speech, "There are always false dawns during financial crises. But we are in a different place than we were."
In politics, though, it is hard to get reelected on the slogan, "It Could Have Been So Much Worse." No president can face increasing jobless numbers and say cheerily, "The good news is that it's only a terrible recession – and someday we'll be over it." That is why the true test of Obama's electoral mandate is how successfully he weathers the economic doldrums that now seem likely to last until the 2010 congressional campaign season begins in earnest. How long will voters continue to believe that America is on the "right track"?
But hope (both in politics and in everyday life) is a quality that defies neat statistical analysis. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt's campaign song was not the mournful "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" but the effervescent "Happy Days Are Here Again." There was nothing happy about bread lines – and the voters knew it. But part of the art of political leadership is the ability to buy yourself time. That will be the challenge facing Obama as the unemployment rate heads for regions unseen since the days of FDR.

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