The confusing but mildly promising jobs report today—stats say an anemic 114,000 jobs were created, but the “household survey” says 873,000 more people found work this month than last—has inspired a back-and-forth frenzy since its announcement at 8:30 this morning. The political question it raises is how much good it will do Barack Obama, reeling from his awful debate performance on Wednesday night.
Two answers suggest themselves. First, it can’t hurt, but it probably won’t help; a really bad jobs report in September did little harm, so there’s scant reason to believe an OK one will turn around his suddenly declining fortunes. Second, the political problem for the president is not the tragedy of life for the unemployed, though it is the most painful fact about the lingering economic malaise. The political problem is the condition of the employed.
It is the reversal of fortunes and the reversal of expectations that is primarily responsible for the 3/5ths to 2/3rds of Americans who say the country is on the wrong track. Many of those who are well-employed get fewer raises than they did, and are likely working harder because their employers have fewer people on the payroll. The ability of people to move from job to job has been hampered—as has the upward effect of such job changes on their wages. Most important, the 64 percent of American households that own their own homes has seen a 20-40 percent decline in their own wealth, as the home in question is usually their largest investment.
These are the structural obstacles placed in nearly everyone’s path by the painfully slow economy. They are the true cause of the president’s political problems. Jobs reports will only help solve that when they suggest there is a thoroughgoing recovery underway that will break the ice, melt the freeze, and allow the economy to roll once again. We are a long, long way from that.