Fragile signs of economic recovery

Employers added 120,000 jobs in November, which helped bring the unemployment rate to its lowest level in two years.

What happened

The U.S. unemployment rate dipped to its lowest level in more than two years last month, according to a Labor Department report that showed both promise and peril for President Obama’s re-election bid. Employers added 120,000 new jobs in November, helping to reduce the unemployment rate by 0.4 percentage points, to 8.6 percent. Job gains for previous months were also revised up, to 210,000 from 158,000 in September, and to 100,000 from 80,000 in October. The president welcomed the figures as a sign that the economic recovery from the Great Recession was finally getting traction, saying that private sector employment had now been growing for “nearly 21 months in a row.”

But the report also highlighted major weaknesses in the economy. Part of the reason the jobless rate fell so much was that about 315,000 people simply gave up looking for work, and were no longer classified as unemployed. And even excluding the hundreds of thousands who left the labor force, the country still has more than 13 million registered jobless workers, whose average period of unemployment stands at a record high of 41 weeks. Those with jobs were also suffering, as average hourly earnings fell 0.1 percent in November. Republicans said the report proved that Obama’s response to the economic crisis had failed. “The Obama administration promised unemployment would stay below 8 percent if its ‘stimulus’ was enacted,” said House Speaker John Boehner. “That promise has gone unfulfilled.”

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What the editorials said

“Cross your fingers and knock on wood,” said the New York Daily News, “the economy may be coming back to life.” As well as a fall in the headline unemployment rate, the number of long-term unemployed job seekers has dropped from 6.7 million in early 2010 to 5.7 million today. And temporary hires are on the rise—often a sign that more permanent jobs are in the offing. There are still dark clouds on the horizon, but at the moment, the trends are “moving in the right direction.”

There’s little to celebrate, said The New York Times. Just to replace all the jobs lost in the recession, and keep up with population growth, the economy would need to add 275,000 jobs a month for the next five years. We’re way off that goal. And the few jobs that have been created are mostly in low-paying sectors, such as retail sales. The only remedy for this dire situation is a strong government intervention to boost the economy. “Yet Congress is tied in knots over even basic recovery measures,” such as extending unemployment benefits or the payroll tax cut.

What the columnists said

Merry Christmas, Mr. President, said Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post. “For Obama to win re-election next year he desperately needs some evidence that the economy is starting to move in the right direction.” This report will help him win over wavering independents, who may be less inclined to make a change at the top if unemployment is steadily dropping.

Try telling that to the Democratic base, said Charlie Cook in National Journal. Unemployment among African-Americans still stands at 15.5 percent, among Hispanics it’s 11.4 percent, and for 18- to 19-year-olds it’s “a whopping 23.6 percent.” Those groups might have propelled Obama’s 2008 victory, but the lack of “hope and change” in the economy could cause dispirited Democrats to stay home in 2012. When Obama is reduced to celebrating the fact that 315,000 people have given up on finding jobs, said Peter Wehner in, you know the economy remains badly wounded. “All the political spin in the world won’t change that.”

True enough, but the real issue is why, said Zachary Karabell in Most of the manufacturing jobs that disappeared during the recession “will never come back,” since they were made obsolete by globalization and new technologies. Democrats and Republicans should stop battling over tax cuts and hikes—which are “pretty useless for job creation”—and instead explain how they would lay the groundwork for a fundamentally restructured economy. That’s what “every recent jobs report tells us we need.” But it’s unlikely that’s what we’ll get.

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