Perhaps my reaction to the latest unemployment statistics is colored by the fact that I'm reading them in Africa, far from the comfortable familiarity of Washington, New York and California. There's nothing like the songs of unfamiliar birds as the sun rises over the hills of Pretoria to accentuate the strangeness of conventional Beltway wisdom.
But no matter where you are, it should always be disorienting to see the the words "8.3 percent unemployment" alongside phrases like "good news" and "economic recovery."
Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats are in an unenviable position: If they celebrate the tepid revival of jobs growth they run the risk of being seen as out of touch with the ongoing pain of many Americans and the reduced prospects for many others. If they acknowledge the ongoing misery that has abandoned millions of Americans to long-term joblessness, and millions of others to wage stagnation, they're giving ammunition to their own opponents.
The president hasn't struck the right balance yet.
"The economy is getting stronger," President Obama said on Friday. "When I come to places like this and I see the work that's being done, it gives me confidence there are better days ahead. I would bet on American workers and American know-how any day of the week."
But the rosy picture is filled with fracture lines: The pace of growth still isn't enough to bring unemployment down to reasonable and historical levels in the next several years. We're not creating the right kind of jobs. Even this tepid recovery is fragile, and could collapse at any moment because of events beyond the president's control.
Let's put the latest employment figures into perspective:
We've had three consecutive months with jobs growth of more than two hundred thousand. That's an improvement, of course, but it still leaves more than twenty million people un- or under-employed. And the fastest growing category of employment is in temp work, followed by health care (mainly low-level caretaker jobs) and "leisure" -- which is described as consisting primarily of "food service and drinking places."
If it's "morning again in America," at least we know somebody's been hired to pour the coffee.
But we also know that this is not a sustainable path forward. If you want to revive the economy you need to provide well-paying jobs, which isn't happening. In fact, we're barely denting the long-term unemployment problem.
The Democrats seem to be searching for the formula that will carry them to victory. How about the truth? The truth is this: The stimulus measures worked, but we need more action. Without it the long-term reality for millions of Americans will be one of perpetual economic recession or depression.
The president could say, "Our stimulus measures worked, but we compromised with Congress and didn't get enough. That means we need more of the same, because we need to improve on these successes by helping millions of people join in the recovery -- which will help all of us."
Is that what he will say? There are no crystal balls in the immediate vicinity, so we don't know. But if he doesn't, he's leaving his fate in the hands of forces beyond his control -- and leaving millions of Americans with no one to speak for them.