You know the White House is getting defensive when officials start adding extra decimal points in an attempt to make the jobless rate look better.
"The unemployment rate ticked up to 8.3 percent in July (or, more precisely, the rate rose from 8.217 percent in June to 8.254 percent in July)," nitpicked Alan Krueger, Chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers on Friday.
True enough, but 8.254 percent rounds up to 8.3 percent, and that's the lousy number President Obama must defend as we head into the final three months of this nasty, never-ending presidential campaign. Obama is acutely aware that no president since World War II has faced re-election with a jobless rate this high. It's but one of many reasons he's on thin ice. Remember what he said back in 2009? "If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."
And what happens when incumbents don't deliver on big things they promise — like jobs? They get all thin-skinned.
Republicans get to say that President Obama overpromised and underdelivered not only on jobs, but also on the deficit.
"If you are going to suggest to me that somehow the day I got elected, somehow jobs should have immediately turned around, well that would be silly. It takes awhile to get things turned around. We were in a recession, we were losing jobs every month," the incumbent said.
What a whiner.
But wait a minute. That last quote was a trick. The politician who said that wasn't Barack Obama. It was Mitt Romney. When he made that comment at a news conference on June 24, 2006, he had been governor of Massachusetts for three years and five months (Obama has been president for three years and seven months). After being given nearly full terms to deal with unemployment, both politicians still complained about the bad hand they'd been dealt.
Same complaining, same tenure in office, just one enormous difference: In 2006, Romney wasn't dealing with the devastating aftermath of the near collapse of the U.S. economy. When he made those June 2006 comments, the housing-bubble burst had yet to occur. Few Americans had ever heard of credit default swaps or collateralized debt obligations. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and all the rest were unknown to most Americans, and the 2008 Bush bailouts of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (August 2008), the big banks (October 2008), and the first stage of the auto bailouts (December 2008) were beyond the realm of imagination. So who really had the bad hand?
On top of this, Romney's timeline isn't even right. When he became Massachusetts governor in January 2003, the recession of 2001 was fading into the rear-view mirror. The National Bureau of Economic Research, which determines when recessions begin and end, said the 2001 downturn had begun in March of that year, but ended in November. That's an eight-month recession.
By contrast, the recession Obama inherited began in December 2007, and was still raging by the time he took office 13 months later. Gross domestic product was collapsing at an -8.9 percent pace in the fourth quarter of 2008, and a -5.9 percent pace in the first quarter of 2009. By the time the recession ended, in June 2009, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) called it "the longest and deepest recession of the post-World War II era." The recession of 2001 that Romney blamed for his woes in Massachusetts? It was "mild and brief," the CRS said, though it featured something that has also dogged Obama and become the norm for economic recoveries these days: A long, jobless recovery "where growth was sluggish and unemployment continued to rise."
So both men running for president blame someone else for the economic headwinds they encountered in office. Coincidentally, it's the same man: George W. Bush, whose administration was bookended by recessions. But there's no denying that the timeline, the circumstances, and the severity in Romney's case were nothing compared to Obama's. "Mild and brief" vs. "the longest and deepest recession of the post-World War II era"? Not even close.
And guess what? A June Gallup survey revealed that Americans understand this:
· 68 percent of Americans, including 49 percent of Republicans, say Bush deserves a "great deal" or "moderate amount" of blame for the economy. Obama gets 52 percent of the blame.
· Among key independent voters, more blame Bush (67 percent) than Obama (51 percent).
Too bad for Obama that he has squandered much of this tactical advantage by giving Republicans ammo. In addition to the foolish and hubristic "one-term proposition" remark, his economic team vowed that unemployment would never rise above 8 percent if they got their stimulus plan (it has never fallen below it, in fact). And, of course, there's Obama's recent "You didn't build that" blunder. It doesn't matter that this last remark in particular was taken out of context — this is politics. These soundbites are pure gold for Team Romney. They get to say that Obama overpromised and underdelivered not only on jobs, but also on the deficit, which he said he would cut it in half in four years. You may have noticed that Mr. Obama doesn't make such specific promises anymore.
Romney, for his part, may have backed himself into the same corner with a similar prediction. If he's elected, he recently told TIME magazine, unemployment will be 6 percent or less after four years. Yet his record in Massachusetts — years after that "mild and brief" recession he complained about — doesn't portend any greater competence on the jobs front than what President Obama has demonstrated. But at least Romney's just as good at the blame game.
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