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.