May 2

Today’s jobs report is, indeed, quite good — 288,000 new jobs added, and a drop in the unemployment rate to 6.3 percent. If they aren’t exactly popping champagne corks over at the White House, at the very least there’s surely a sigh of relief, and a renewed hope that if they can string together a few more months of healthy growth, then Dems might head into November with a better narrative about the economy, mitigating one of many factors suggesting a big Republican win.

But the relationship between the facts of the economy, the way those facts are perceived and discussed, and the outcome of elections is complicated – more so in a midterm year like this one than when there’s a presidential election. Perhaps most importantly, Democrats’ own assessments of the fundamentals of the economy — how it works, who controls it, and where it has gone not just this year but over decades — make it very difficult to celebrate any short-term gains, no matter how significant.

Before we go further, remember that the usual caveats about jobs reports apply to this one. One month’s results don’t tell us much about the overall trend, especially since they’re often revised later (this month’s report revises the last two months’ growth reports upward, which is good). And there was a drop in the labor force participation rate, which as Neil Irwin explains, should keep us from viewing this month’s numbers as unambiguously good:

It’s great that job growth is showing more life after a gloomy winter, and the usual statistical randomness made it look less robust at the start of the year. But it would be a lot more satisfying if an improving job market was coaxing more people into the labor force, rather than leading them to leave it, and if it were accompanied by higher pay for workers who haven’t seen significant raises in the better part of a decade.

That last point suggests a factor that restrains Democrats’ ability to crow about even good short-term economic gains. Democrats have been spending a lot of time lately talking about inequality, which is not a function of what happened this month or last month, but the result of forces and trends that have evolved over the last thirty years. That’s an important discussion to have, and an argument that resonates with voters, particularly when Republicans are inclined to deny inequality exists, or that it matters if it does. But when you’ve been saying that we have a profound and deep-seated inequality problem that was three decades in the making, it’s awfully hard to turn around on the evidence of a month or two of job growth and say, “Things are going much better now!”

That doesn’t mean Democrats can’t argue, as they surely will, that the Obama administration’s policies are helping the economy pull out of the long and painful period of difficulty we’ve had since the Great Recession. And of course, they can also say that things would have been much worse had the other guys been in charge. But because they’ve begun to talk about how the system is rigged, they can’t sing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Meanwhile, even if the recovery is showing some signs of life, it turns out that there isn’t much evidence that economic factors, and job growth in particular, have a strong impact on the outcome of midterm elections like the one coming up in November — the economy plays a much larger role in presidential elections. Even in the best case scenario – if job growth is healthy and there’s lots of good news about the Affordable Care Act — Republicans will probably still have a strong advantage among the voters likely to turn out.

And Democrats face complications on the economy, too. Republicans can make a simple argument. If we get a healthy jobs report like this one, they can say “Not good enough.” If the next one is poor, they’ll say, “See? This is Obama’s fault.” But for Democrats, things are tougher. When the news is bad, they have to make a complex argument about hypotheticals (what might have happened if Republican policies were followed) and the long-term trends that hold us back. And even good news can’t be celebrated too much, lest they undermine their broader arguments about inequality, and the items on their agenda, like a minimum wage increase, that are meant to address it.

So the real challenge for Democrats — in this year’s election, the 2016 presidential race, and the policy-making that comes in between — will be balancing the two arguments they want to make: first, that their policies have made things better, and second, that something fundamental in the American economy still needs to change. It won’t be easy — no matter what the jobs reports say.