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.”