The release of employment numbers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has long been a ritual in Washington, but lately it has turned into an obsession during an election year defined by economic instability. Once each month, a nondescript government agency compiles and releases 24 tables of economic data that have come to define the 2012 election and so much else. Republican presidential candidates turn the numbers into speeches. The president’s staff monitors how they affect his approval rating. The Federal Reserve reevaluates interest rates. Investors prepare for the stock market to rise or fall, sometimes swinging in value by $150 billion in the minutes after the report is released.
“This is the set of facts that lays the groundwork for the next month of debate,” said Hilda Solis, secretary of the Labor Department.
So, on Friday morning in Washington, many of the country’s most powerful politicians cleared their schedules to wait.
The past five reports had brought good news for President Obama, averaging out to gains of more than 150,000 jobs each month, a pace his aides believe will earn him reelection. But the unemployment rate remained above 8 percent, and Republicans guessed it would stay there through November. “If it’s over eight, he’s in serious trouble,” one of Mitt Romney’s advisers had said.
In a windowless room in the Labor Department, 40 economists and journalists prepared for the report’s official release. They studied the contents of folders labeled: “Confidential Data: For those with authorization, access and need-to-know.” They had received the report 30 minutes early under strict supervision. Their computers were connected to a central switch, ensuring that they couldn’t publish anything until exactly at 8:30. The Labor Department had recently sought security advice from the organization that safeguards the country’s stockpile of national weapons, for fear of a last-minute leak. Now a security expert called the Naval Observatory to confirm that the room’s atomic clock was precise to the nanosecond.
“Transmission begins in 10 seconds!” he yelled, and others in the room began counting down.
Nine . . . eight . . . seven . . .
Upstairs, Solis steeled herself for 21 press interviews about the new report, a 14-hour day she had come to regard as “the longest, hardest, most important event of the month.”
Six . . . five . . . four . . .
An economic adviser to Newt Gingrich drafted a memo to his boss, anticipating “some weak numbers” and suggesting his candidate compare this recovery with the more robust one under President Ronald Reagan.
Three . . . two . . . one . . .
“Based on one report, it’s as if the president’s full economic agenda is either brilliant or moronic,” said Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist for Vice President Biden. “Get good numbers and you’re Keynes reincarnate. Get bad numbers and you can’t add.
“It’s all or nothing.”
‘You dream in numbers’
Karen Kosanovich had been working through the numbers in her high-walled cubicle for the past eight days, trying to turn 110,000 lines of raw data into a precise summary understandable to the general public. Empty cans of Red Bull sat on one side of her desk. Folders labeled “CLASSIFIED DATA” stacked high on the other. She had helped compile the past 164 employment situation reports, but still each month began with the same sense of improbability.
“You come in early. You go home late. You dream in numbers,” she said. “The whole process can start to consume you.”
The raw data had arrived at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), like always, on Wednesday the week before the report’s release: millions of characters representing survey information from 55,000 households; and then, a few days later, monthly payroll data from 486,000 businesses. Kosanovich’s boss posted a two-page schedule on the office wall, detailing the tasks ahead for a team of more than 20 economists. They would be required to make a series of six deadlines. Their work would undergo 15 fact checks and then 15 clearance reviews. They would sit together in a windowless conference room and read aloud from their eventual creation, a three-page news release and 24 data tables, debating commas and verbs for hours on end.
They would do it all with absolute discretion during an eight-day security lockdown, signing confidentiality agreements each morning, encrypting their computers and locking data into a safe every time they walked 10 yards away to use a bathroom. “Is your workstation secure?” asked a sign in the hallway. They all remembered the last security miscue, in November 2008 — the accidental transmission of some data to one wire service a full 25 seconds before the report’s scheduled release, an incident that had necessitated a series of internal investigations and revisions.
“We always tape paper over the windows of the conference room or draw the shades,” Kosanovich said about her typical routine during a lockdown. She made a habit of refraining from answering phone calls or e-mails from unknown numbers and never discussing data outside her office. For eight days, nobody visited her team’s floor at BLS without a security clearance. The custodial staff did not empty their trash until the report was released.
The lockdown was an exercise in tedium and precision, but those have been the hallmarks of BLS for 125 years. The agency remains strictly nonpartisan and intentionally bland. It measures the economy without ever opining on it. “The glass here is never half-empty or half-full,” Kosanovich said, repeating a popular BLS motto. “It’s an eight-ounce glass with four ounces of liquid.”
A first draft of the report was due at 8:30 Wednesday morning, and Kosanovich and the team followed the customary BLS model: always beginning, in bold, with the change in payroll employment and the unemployment rate; then proceeding to detailed descriptions of unemployment by sex and race. They checked each number against the survey’s margin of error — a change of 50,000 jobs could in fact mean no change at all — and then crafted sentences based on a list of approved descriptors.
“We will never say something plummeted,” Kosanovich said. “We might say it decreased. We might even get wild and call it a large decline. But we never want to sensationalize.”
Early Thursday, about two-dozen BLS employees edited the draft, arguing about whether to say that a change in employment had affected “most” industries or “many.” The economists met again to review the document with the BLS commissioner, and then again to read the report out loud before clearing it for publication.
“It’s like raising children and watching them head out into the world,” Kosanovich said. “You know the numbers are going to get knocked around, but you just have to trust that they can stand on their own.”
Finally, about 4 p.m., a mid-level employee grabbed the first three copies of the finished report and a few CDs of data from a safe at BLS. He placed the materials into a black suitcase with a combination lock and rolled it out of the secure area and into downtown Washington.
In the know
The locked suitcase arrived at an office building adjacent to the White House, where staff members on the president’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) had been waiting for the delivery. Only a select few officials had clearance from BLS to see the data before the official release at 8:30 Friday morning: Obama, Biden, a handful of top government economists and the secretary of labor. These were 12 crucial hours, a head start toward understanding the report and what it could mean for the days ahead.
Some longtime members of the president’s staff had come to anticipate the arrival of the monthly numbers with a sense of foreboding, still scarred from the first two employment reports after Obama’s inauguration in early 2009. The United States had lost 598,000 jobs that January and then an additional 651,000 in February. “Disastrous,” the president said then. And as the unemployment rate continued to rise for another year, he stopped making statements about the BLS report altogether.
But lately the reports had been much better — unemployment at a three-year low and gains in jobs created during each of the past two months, including 243,000 new jobs in January, a revelation that had sent the stock market to its highest level since May 2008. The president had pumped his fist when announcing the numbers during appearances at factories and small businesses. “More good news,” he said one month. And then, the next: “This is another sign of a strong recovery.”
When the latest data arrived at the CEA, the economists called the White House staff secretary to say they had the numbers. A labor specialist double-checked the data. Alan Krueger, head of the CEA, began drafting a one-page summary memo of analysis for the president. It was best, the CEA had decided, not to overemphasize good trends and overlook bad ones, which would lead only to inflated public expectations the following month.
As darkness fell Thursday night, a junior staffer walked one copy of the memo to the White House for last-minute inclusion in the president’s briefing book. Another copy went to the National Economic Council. A third was delivered to the office of the vice president.
Everyone else was left to guess. Romney’s economists, one of whom had led the CEA under President George W. Bush, studied data they hoped would offer clues about the next morning’s news. One manufacturing index showed a small decrease in jobs; another private-sector index showed a bump in hiring by 200,000. “I think we might see some very sluggish growth,” said Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economist and Romney adviser. The key for his candidate was to emphasize not the growth but the sluggishness.
An adviser to Gingrich prepared to attack methods of the report itself. In the previous month’s BLS release, Peter Ferrera had noticed that more than 5 million Americans had left the workforce and therefore had not been counted in the unemployment rate. “Where did they go?” he said. “I’d put the unemployment rate at 11 percent. I’m looking at this thing to see if there’s some favoritism in the methodologies for this administration.”
The administration’s primary spokeswoman on the data, Solis, went to bed Thursday night also clueless as to the content of the report. She woke up the next morning and turned her TV to CNBC and Bloomberg to watch analysts guess at the numbers. Finally, at 8 a.m., she met in her office with the BLS commissioner, a press aide and her own economist to review copies of the data 30 minutes before the release. She read the report line by line, creating a list of talking points.
“I have to be the explainer in chief, whether the news is good or bad,” she said.
Adriana Kugler, Solis’s chief economist, said: “The BLS does great work getting the numbers. Then we take those numbers and turn them into a story.”
The clock in Solis’s office ticked toward the release time. A bell rang at BLS. A team of technicians posted the employment situation report online, and 40 journalists in a lockdown at the Labor Department sent off their stories.
It was 8:30 a.m. The report was now public.
And they’re off
“Payroll employment rose by 227,000 in February, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.3 percent,” it began.
The three-page release contained only BLS-approved verbs. Eight economic indicators “rose,” seven were “unchanged,” and four “increased,” it said.
The new numbers scrolled across the digital screens in Time Square. The stock market rose, if only slightly. Analysts predicted that Obama’s approval rating might improve. Politicians scheduled news conferences, and speechwriters rushed out statements.
An hour after the report’s release, the BLS list of measured verbs had given way to hyperbole, and a singular set of facts had become two interpretations.
“Further evidence that the economy is continuing to heal,” said Krueger, the president’s chief economist.
“A testament to the hard work of the American people that they are creating any jobs in the midst of the onslaught of anti-business policies coming from this administration,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
“I am confident that we are on the right path,” said Solis.
“Widespread joblessness has become the norm under this president,” said Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee.
Obama traveled to a Rolls Royce jet engine manufacturing plant near Richmond to talk about the numbers, saying that “the economy is getting stronger” and predicting “better days ahead.”
Gingrich’s response was to criticize the math behind the report. “Calculated another way, the unemployment rate should be 10.3 percent,” he said. Romney thought 8.3 percent was good enough to make his point: “Eight percent unemployment is not the best America can do,” he said. “It’s the best this president can do.” Rick Santorum said any improvements in the economy were “in spite of the head winds that this administration has put in place.”
Politicians and strategists in Washington would continue to parse the report. They would use it to debate whether the economy was improving, whether the president’s policies had succeeded, whether he deserved another term.
Meanwhile, in a quiet office suite at BLS where the numbers were only numbers, Kosanovich and her team of economists ate celebratory doughnuts and loaded another 15,000 economic tables onto their Web site. Soon they would begin collecting data again, starting the countdown to another release on another Friday at 8:30 a.m.
“We know people will be waiting,” Kosanovich said.