For months he had warned it was coming but that didn’t ease the political shockwaves for President Barack Obama when unemployment topped 10 percent.
A year after his election Obama finds it increasingly difficult to blame the sour economy on George W. Bush or offer reassurances that jobless Americans will soon find work.
Never mind that the economy itself grew in the last quarter, that the recession, as measured by the precise formulas used by economists, is over and that the number of jobs lost in October was less than one-third the number of job losses at the start of his presidency.
Those claims about the recession’s end do not convince people who remain painfully aware of the unemployment rate.
At 10.2 percent, October unemployment climbed to chart-topping heights unseen in more than a quarter century. The bottom line is that more than 15 million Americans are out of work and 3.5 million lost their jobs while Obama was president. Expected or not, this is Obama’s new reality.
“I won’t let up until the Americans who want to find work can find work, and until all Americans can earn enough to raise their families and keep their businesses open,” the president declared Friday.
That’s a hopeful promise but not very realistic.
And it shows that, for the time being, action to tackle record budget deficits will simply have to wait.
Obama, appearing at the White House Rose Garden on Friday three hours after the jobless numbers were made public, said his administration was looking at additional spending for roads and bridges and energy efficient buildings. Additional tax cuts for businesses and steps to increase credit for small businesses were also on the bill.
The new unemployment rate also came on the same day Obama signed a $24 billion bill to extend jobless benefits and spur homebuying
In a sign of Democratic thinking, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who heads Congress’s Joint Economic committee, said Democrats would consider new aid to states, an “infrastructure bank” to increase construction jobs and small business tax credits.
“I think we’re witnessing a political renaissance about concerns about jobs,” Lawrence Mishel, president of the labor-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said approvingly. “It will put the deficit concerns into their appropriate context.”
What all this amounts to is another stimulus for the economy. Though don’t look for Democrats to call it that; Democrats have a tough enough time debating the merits of the $787 billion stimulus Congress passed earlier this year.
Republicans were quick to pounce on the proposals. Internal polling by the Republican National Committee after Republican gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia showed that Republican candidates could do well by arguing against additional spending while promoting job growth through tax cutting alone.
But in rhetoric and in deed, Obama is being forced to address an unemployment picture his economic team had long ago expected to avoid.
Many economists predict the jobless rate will rise again, peaking at 10.5 percent sometime next year before employment makes a turnaround in the spring. That still means unemployment will remain high for some time. The administration’s own projections still see unemployment at 8 percent by the end of 2011.
Such lingering discomfort can have economic and political consequences.
Consumer spending likely won’t increase rapidly. Foreclosures will continue to rise, hitting not just subprime borrowers, but prime mortgage holders as well. Commercial real estate lending, already teetering, could plunge in the face of rising vacancy and loan delinquency rates.
Politically, Democrats are staring at some damage — and the fear of unemployment — themselves. Exit polls Tuesday in the New Jersey and Virginia GOP victories showed that the economy was the top issue in the minds of voters. And national public opinion surveys show that a majority of the public doesn’t believe Obama’s economic policies are working.
Couple that with traditional losses by the president’s party during midterm elections and Democrats have cause to worry about their own fate.
The unemployment number masks the fact that job losses slowed compared to past months — the work force went down by 190,000 in October compared to 219,000 in September. What’s more, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said job losses in August and September had been overstated by 91,000.
In addition, the economy grew by 3.5 percent in the third quarter. And Christina Romer, a top Obama economic adviser, noted an increase in temporary service jobs. “That’s often the first sign of firms kind of dipping their toe back into hiring people,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press.
But since the start of the recession in December 2007, 7.3 million Americans have lost their jobs and key sectors — construction, manufacturing and retail trade — are still seeing significant declines.
The president has not been helped by reports of flaws in the administration’s count of jobs created by the $787 billion stimulus.
Ten months into the job, Obama did not even try to lay the blame for the economy at Bush’s feet, as he has in the past. His only criticism was implied.
“When we first came into office, our immediate goal was to stop the free fall that caused our economy to shrink at an alarming rate,” he said. “We’ve succeeded in achieving that goal, as our economy grew last quarter for the first time in a year.”
But Obama has already taken ownership of the economy.
Republicans, he noted wryly during a July speech in Michigan, were eager to blame him for the economy.
“That’s fine,” he added, “Give it to me!”
Four months later, it would be hard to give it back.
Jim Kuhnhenn covers economics and politics for The Associated Press.