The forced exuberance on the left over a mediocre and confusing job report is understandable. There is little to cheer about for Obama supporters. His debate outing was a disaster, he lacks a compelling second-term agenda and the Libya debacle is generating daily headlines. The polls are shifting as much or more as they did after the Democratic National Convention, but this time in Mitt Romney’s direction.
This report is a tale of two labor markets. The establishment survey (payrolls) painted a picture of moderately growing employment over the last three months but at a marginally slower pace than over the last year. At this pace of job creation, the unemployment rate should be barely drifting lower given underlying demographic trends. In contrast, the household survey painted a picture of a sharply falling unemployment rate — down 1.2% points over the last 12 months. Such a rapid decline in the unemployment rate would be consistent with 4%–5% real economic growth historically but much of the decline is accounted for by people dropping out of the labor force (over the last year the employment-population ratio has risen to only 58.7% from 58.4%). We believe part of the drop in the unemployment rate over the last two months is a statistical quirk (the household data show an increase in employment of 873,000 in September, which is completely implausible and likely a result of sampling volatility).
That said, mainstream outlets and nervous liberal pundits will spin the numbers for all they are worth. But really, if an awful August jobs number didn’t move the polls will a contradictory, mediocre September report do so? We’ll find out, but the left might want to hold off on the celebrations for now. They’ve got a serious problem, made worse by the Obama team’s insistence that the problem with the first debate was that Romney “lied.”
In the post-debate days Romney has stuck strongly to his clearer, more empathetic messaging. This ad obviously aimed at women is one of his better efforts:
In his weekly podcast Romney is making the case that the “recovery” is pathetic, an argument historically valid when you compare it to all other recoveries since World War II. This will no doubt form the core of his argument in the ensuing debates: “We created fewer jobs in September than in August, and fewer jobs in August than in July, and we’ve lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office. If not for all the people who have simply dropped out of the labor force, the real unemployment rate would be closer to 11%. The results of President Obama’s failed policies are staggering — 23 million Americans are struggling for work, nearly one in six are living in poverty, and 47 million people are dependent on food stamps to feed themselves and their families.”
Whereas the first debate focused in large part on Romney’s policies, the president has a more fundamental problem: He doesn’t have much of a second-term agenda. Raising taxes is not about promoting a recovery, even he would likely concede. Hiring 100,000 teachers may or may not be a good idea, but it’s a puny response to the prospect of ongoing high unemployment. And community college may be a good idea as well (are there really 2 million people who can’t afford it?), but at most all this would do would be to herd more people out of the labor market (and thereby bring down the rate by reducing labor participation, yet again.) His budgets have never dipped below $1 trillion in debt, he’s offered no plan to avoid the fiscal cliff and we face a defense sequestration that will increase unemployment by 200,000. As Ron Brownstein observed, “Other than blocking the GOP’s initiatives, Obama didn’t seem to be burning to accomplish much of anything over the next four years. . . .By the time the two men meet again on Oct. 16, Obama will surely be more aggressive in making a case against Romney. But even if the president makes a more effective argument against his opponent, he will still face the challenge of convincing Americans that he has a plan to make their lives better.”
The biggest problem for Obama is not a bad debate performance; it is a lousy record, a demonstrated inability to work with the other party and the absence of a compelling agenda. He had banked on disqualifying Romney as an unacceptable alternative. That is impossible now, I would suggest. So once again, why is that we should reelect him?