Head-spinning job gain (and loss) claims by the DNC and RNC

at 06:00 AM ET, 06/16/2011


(William B. Plowman/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

“When President Obama took office, the month before he was inaugurated, the economy was bleeding 750,000 jobs a month, David. And we were not headed in the right direction. …You fast-forward two and a half years later now, and the economy has created 2.1 million private sector jobs.”

— Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” June 12, 2011

“The Chairwoman is living in Fantasyland. We know that the facts are the facts, and we can’t get away from that, and Barack Obama is defenseless to the truth on what’s going on in the American economy. We have lost 2.5 million jobs since Barack Obama has been president.”

— Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, moments later on the same program

A reader who watched NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday found his head spinning as the DNC chief and the RNC chief battled with dueling factoids about the employment record under President Obama. He was particularly amused that Wasserman Schultz said there were 2 million more jobs and Priebus asserted there were 2.5 million fewer jobs.

Whew, that’s a swing of nearly 5 million jobs in just a few seconds! He had wanted host David Gregory to call for a stop in the debate and have the two party chiefs explain themselves. They can’t both be right, can they?

Amazingly, they are. Priebus is on more solid ground, rhetorically, but both are cherry-picking the statistics to make the best possible case for their side.

The Facts

The recession that greeted Obama when he took office was one of the worst recessions since the end of World War II. It started in December 2007, but the bottom really fell out in late 2008, after the investment firm Lehman Brothers collapsed—a moment that probably sealed Obama’s victory.

The common source of statistics for U.S. employment is the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics current employment survey, which is where Wasserman Schultz and Priebus derived their statistics. (If you want to know more, the BLS has published an interesting analysis of employment loss during the recession.)

Priebus crafts his statistics by starting with employment when Obama took office, which he signals with the phrase “since Barack Obama has been president.” There were 133.56 million people with nonfarm (private sector and government) jobs in January 2009; there are 131.04 million people with jobs today. Subtract one from the other, and that shows 2.5 million fewer jobs.

So, yes, it is accurate, but is that fair? After all, it took weeks for many of Obama’s polices to be passed by Congress — and months to take effect, while some 2.5 million jobs were lost in the first four months of Obama’s presidency.

Wasserman Schultz, meanwhile, starts from a different point — when the employment hit rock bottom, in February 2010. That was 13 months after Obama became president. It is also eight months after the recession officially ended in June 2009, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

That would yield an increase of 1.8 million jobs, but then Wasserman Schultz greases the skids by slipping in the phrase “private-sector jobs.” When government jobs are removed from the statistic, suddenly the job growth is 2.1 million since February 2010.

(Earlier in her remarks, she references the fact that “the economy was bleeding 750,000 jobs a month” when Obama took office. This happens to be the same for private-sector jobs and the broader nonfarm figure — about 750,000 jobs a month.)

Wasserman Schultz is taking a page from the other team’s playbook. Republicans have used this kind of job accounting in the past.

President George W. Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union address, bragged, “In the last two-and-a-half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs — more than Japan and the European Union combined.” Like Wasserman Schultz, Bush started from the employment trough after a recession, allowing him to ignore the 2.5 million jobs that were lost due to the recession at the start of his presidency.

DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse defended the statistic. He said that looking at the growth of jobs in the past 15 months is the best reflection of the impact of the stimulus package, which he said took months to work its way through the economy. He added that private-sector jobs are the “most accurate reflection of where the economy is going,” especially because government employment was artificially boosted in 2010 because of Census hiring. “Turn on CNBC,” he said. “They talk about private-sector growth ad nauseum.”

RNC spokesman Joe Pounder, not surprisingly, disagrees and defends starting the job count from the beginning of the president’s term. “The president’s major economic policy – the stimulus – was signed into law on February 17, 2009,” Pounder said. “The president and his administration were cited far and wide saying it would have an immediate impact. If the stimulus had worked as the administration intended, I’m sure they would have no problem counting jobs over the course of his entire term.”

We actually think a more logical place to measure job growth would be from the end of the recession — June 2009. That would give the new president time to take ownership of the economic situation, and yet remove some of the job losses that clearly did not happen as a result of his policies. (Obama is an unusual case in that as senator he voted in favor of key Bush actions designed to combat the recession, but those were still not his own policies.)

Counting from June 2009, job growth over two years is 600,000, which is still fairly grim. No wonder the DNC does not use it as a talking point.

Priebus is on more solid ground rhetorically because, like it or not, presidents often are measured by job growth during their entire term. For instance, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), when he was running for president in 2004, frequently charged that Bush was the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose jobs in his term (at the time of the election in November, about 300,000 jobs had been lost under Bush, though by the time he took the oath of office again in 2005, the tally was essentially even.)

When Obama took office, the Wall Street Journal published an interactive chart showing job creation under various presidents. The headline was “Bush on Jobs: The Worst Record on Record.” (Bill Clinton was first in terms of job creation, payroll expansion, and jobs created per year, followed by Ronald Reagan for jobs created, Lyndon Johnson for payroll expansion, and Jimmy Carter for jobs created per year in office.)

If the economy doesn’t pick up the pace soon, Obama may find himself with an even worse jobs record than Bush.

The Pinocchio Test

Both figures are technically accurate, but don’t tell the whole story. We will give Priebus a pass because he used a relatively common measure of job growth during a presidency. Wasserman Schultz, by contrast, picked the data set that gave the most positive picture possible, thus distorting the record. It may be a snapshot in time, but it is not a full picture of the economy during Obama’s presidency since the recession ended.

One Pinocchio

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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