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Jobs Crisis a Trap for Obama in 2012

Heather Boushey from the Center for American Progress comments on this month’s job numbers:

The upshot: Today’s job growth is an improvement, but there is a large backlog of workers waiting in the unemployment queue as well as millions who have given up searching, but still want to work.

We need to see job growth break above 300,000 a month and stay at that level for many months before the unemployment rate will begin to come back down. Today’s report provides a number of data points that point toward caution in interpreting the data positively in anticipation of that level of jobs growth returning anytime soon.

The average hours worked for production and nonsupervisory employees was 33.6 hours per week in April, the same as in March. This remains below the 2000s recovery peak of 33.9 hours per week, and far below the late 1990s peak of 34.6 hours per week. At the same time, employers shed 2,300 temporary workers, which either means they are hiring permanent employees or they are no longer seeing an increase in demand.

Another concern is that state and local cutbacks continue to drag down the labor market. Government employers shed 24,000 jobs in April, with 14,000 of those lost at the local level. These cut-backs are hitting women especially hard: Women have lost nearly two-thirds of all the 404,000 jobs lost in government over the past year.

She adds that wage growth remains stagnant, numbers on newly unemployed workers are up sharply and weekly first-time jobless numbers have spiked (those two correlate). Worst of all, as Ezra Klein says wryly, “the only people in Washington who seem to care about jobs anymore are those who can’t do anything about them.” Jobs plans were released by Senate Republicans and House Democrats, the two minority caucuses in Congress. And the Senate Republican “jobs” plan was a boilerplate plan to limit government and stop Obama initiatives.

Outside of hosting a town hall, I see no initiatives from the Obama Administration to get millions of Americans back to work. They are relying on somewhat OK jobs reports and hoping that they will just advance on their own. And given the reality of governance in the House, maybe that’s all they can do. But this will have an impact in 2012, bigger than the bin Laden incident or the deficit or anything else.

Mitt Romney’s response to the jobs numbers is consistent with the main theme of his candidacy since he announced.

“Today’s disheartening unemployment increase is another reminder of the failure of President Obama’s economic policies. We are in the third year of unemployment above 8%. This figure is not just a statistic – 20 million Americans are out of work, underemployed, or have stopped looking for work. The cost of the President’s inexperience and failed liberal policies is borne by families across the country. To get people back to work will take experienced economic leadership, a commitment to rein in government, and a credible plan to make America the best place in the world for growth and jobs.”

Romney is being disingenuous by focusing on the increase in the unemployment rate. And all he does is raise questions rather than deliver any answers about what he would do. However, I could see this critique being very effective. Romney has been trying to show empathy on the unemployment crisis. He’s called it a crisis, and he emphasizes how it’s “not just a statistic.” Romney understands that second-term campaigns are a referendum on the incumbent. And if he can credibly portray Obama as out of touch with the biggest problem in America, the jobs crisis, he can garner at least some support.

So this may be a case where focusing only on the possible, rather than expanding the terrain of what is possible, generates a backlash. Except for those at the very top, the country is extremely worried about the state of the economy, and believes the recovery hasn’t begun. That’s not a good perception to have to carry into re-election.

UPDATE: More from Zach Carter, who spoke with Council of Economic Advisers Chair Austan Goolsbee.

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David Dayen

David Dayen