April jobs report: Obama’s time grows short on the economy

at 12:29 PM ET, 05/04/2012

The disappointing April jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics this morning not only complicates the Obama Administration’s argument that the President’s policies on the economy are beginning to work but also brings them dangerously close to the point at which even a substantial recovery might not be fully noticed by voters.


President Obama greets an audience at the White House Forum on Women and the Economy on April 6. (Yuri Gripas - Reuters)
But, wait, you say: It’s only May. The election is still more than six months off. Yes, that’s, of course, true. (There are 186 days between today and election day — but who’s counting?)

That seems like a long time — plenty of time, certainly, for voters’ perceptions on how President Obama is handling the economy to shift in the incumbent’s favor.

It’s not.

Consider: We are roughly one month away from most schools letting out and, therefore, we are one month away from the start of summer vacation season.

Add to that reality the fact that summer is traditionally a time when most Americans zone out a bit from politics — yes, even more than they usually zone out — and that by the time Labor Day rolls around peoples' perceptions about how things are going in the country begin to harden, and you begin to see the potential difficulties for Obama if the next few months of jobs reports don’t get (much) better.

In an ideal world for Obama, the surprisingly strong jobs report in February would have triggered several months of equal or even stronger growth, timing that would have been perfect in terms of changing perceptions about the state of the economy. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Still, there is a way to view the report in a positive way for President Obama. If you buy the idea that most Americans use the unemployment rate as their guide in determining whether the economy is getting better or not, then the April report continues a (slight) downward trend on that measure.

Here’s a chart detailing the unemployment trend line since Obama took office in January 2009:

Obviously, that line is not trending downwards nearly as fast as the Obama team would like. But, it is trending down.

“The economy has made Obama vulnerable, but I don’t see this report increasing that vulnerability in a material way,” said Tom Gallagher, a Democratic economics expert.

But, Matt McDonald, who works at Hamilton Place Strategies and is an adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, had a different take on how to read both the April jobs report and the broader unemployment rate.

“I think we’re seeing a decoupling of the unemployment rate with the reality that people experience,” said McDonald. “That’s why even with unemployment falling, three-quarters of Americans think we’re still in recession.”

The next three months of jobs reports — May and June, in particular — are absolutely critical to setting the final economic narrative of the campaign. After that, major changes in how people see the economy and the direction it’s headed are unlikely.

 
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