February 7, 2012

The January jobs report — 243,000 jobs added — was greeted with widespread relief. The economists over at the Wall Street Journal were virtually giddy: “a game changer,” “positive report in really every way,” “strength is everywhere,” “a blow-out number.” Liberal analysts celebrated its effects on Obama’s reelection prospects. Matt Yglesias hailed “recovery winter,” arguing that barring “some tragic unforeseen disaster,” we “should be in for . . . accelerating growth that put(s) us back on the path to full employment.” Ezra Klein concluded that the report – “all good” – contained “the sort of numbers that win elections.”

The best news of the day was not just the upside surprise of the jobs numbers, but the reaction of President Obama. He joined commentators in hailing the good news: “the economy is growing stronger. The recovery is speeding up.” But he wasn’t proclaiming “recovery winter,” a reference to the ruinous White House plan to campaign on the recovery in the summer of 2010, after prematurely turning to deficit reduction in the State of the Union that year.

Instead, the president greeted the jobs report by pushing for more action. “We must do everything in our power to keep it [jobs growth] going.” He called on Congress to act on his initiative, unveiled in the State of the Union address this year, to create a $1 billion Veterans Jobs Corps to employ returning veterans in public construction projects over the next five years, and to send $5 billion in incentives to cities and towns to hire veterans as firefighters and other emergency responders. And the president laid down a clear challenge to House Republicans that they should act immediately to extend the payroll tax cut or earn justified blame for interfering with the recovery:

“Now is not the time for self-inflicted wounds to the economy. So I want to send a clear message to Congress: Do not slow the recovery that we are on; do not muck it up; keep it moving in the right direction.”

This stance is both good policy and good politics. With 24 million people still unemployed or underemployed, we’ve got a long way to go before hailing “recovery winter.” And the economy still faces harsh head winds. It’s less “tragic unforeseen disaster(s)” that we need fear, than quite foreseeable perils. Austerity is driving Europe into recession, even if it avoids a financial calamity. Asia is slowing.

In this country, declining housing prices and underwater houses continue to plague homeowners and the construction industry. Wages aren’t keeping up with inflation. State and local governments are still laying off workers, with an estimated 180,000 public job losses projected for the year. And anyone who thinks the banks are out of the woods hasn’t been paying attention. No wonder the Congressional Budget Office projects unemployment staying above 8 percent through the end of the year, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke continues to sound alarms about mass and long-term unemployment.

While pundits speculated on what the January jobs report did for Obama’s reelection chances, Republicans were unimpressed. Led by Mitt Romney, they blamed Obama for a record 36 months of unemployment over 8 percent, creating that as a marker for November. (Republicans appear to have amnesia about the conservative follies that dug the hole we are in.) The economy would have to add between 167,000 and 260,000 new jobs per month to get to 8 percent by November. (The span reflects the difficulty in estimating how many people — particularly seniors — will return to the workforce once job growth starts to pick up.) Romney Republicans are betting on Obama to fail, and they are doing what they can to ensure that he does.

The president sensibly put forth the American Jobs Act last fall and campaigned on it when Republicans, as is their wont, stood in the way. Most of the $447 billion price tag is the cost of sustaining the boost now going to the economy — the payroll tax cut, extending unemployment insurance, aid to keep teachers and police officers employed. A modest infrastructure proposal was an addition, as is the president’s Veterans Jobs Corps, which would provide jobs for 20,000 veterans of the 250,000 or so total unemployed. Yet even these tempered measures — all “paid for” by taxes on the rich and money saved by ending the wars abroad — face continued and fierce obstruction from the Tea Party-dominated House Republicans.

The president is wise to keep pushing for action. This helps educate Americans about how far we have to go, and about the things that must be done to get there. And it puts Republicans on notice that continued obstruction may not only threaten the jobs that the United States desperately needs but also may endanger their own job security.

We are still a far remove from the bold policies needed to put this economy on the path to sustained and shared prosperity. But at least the president gets it. He isn’t breaking out the champagne; he’s rolling up his sleeves.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the author of the book “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama.”