The economy added 244,000 jobs in April. That should be good news for President Obama and the Democrats. But according to the Economic Policy Institute, at this rate of job growth it would take until the fall of 2016 for unemployment to come back down to where it was before the recession. The next election, unfortunately, is in 2012.
Among the not-so-great items in the Labor Department's report:
President Obama had a good couple of weeks. He deftly surfaced his long-form birth certificate, a move whose timing baffled pundits until the other shoe dropped -- and the public appreciated that he was grappling with very consequential matters while his opponents were mired in trivia. The mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden displayed presidential nerve and leadership that has often seemed missing in this administration.
But despite the president's enhanced stature on national security issues and his success in showing up his critics, the 2012 election will be mainly about the economy. With so many Americans still out of work, a large number of voters have a co-worker, friend, or family member suffering from joblessness.
It is easy to construct a national scenario in which Obama is plainly a more formidable candidate than any likely Republican nominee. The trouble is that we elect presidents state by state. And it will be hard for an incumbent to win if the economy in the key swing states of the Midwest remains deeply depressed.
It might be easier if the president were pushing hard for a robust recovery program while the Republicans were promoting slash-and-burn austerity. Obama could then point to the sluggish recovery and clearly lay it at the Republicans' door.
But Obama himself, though he has admirably defended Social Security and Medicare, forcing Republicans to distance themselves from Rep. Paul Ryan's proposed plan to turn Medicare into a voucher, is nonetheless giving more attention to deficit reduction than to job creation.
Long after the skirmishes over this year's budget cease dominating the news, when the government stays open and the United States does not default on our national debt, the major issue before the voters in 2012 will still be the condition of the economy, not the deficit. Though Obama's version of fiscal austerity is kinder and gentler than that of the Republicans, cutting the deficit while the recovery is still fragile could well slow growth and blur political responsibility.
The ambiguous April jobs numbers are a signal not of green shoots but of the perils of premature belt-tightening.
There are now three parties of austerity dominating the economic debate, while the party of jobs and growth is scarcely heard from.
We have the Republicans demanding draconian cuts in the name of fiscal responsibility, even though their proposed tax reductions would leave the deficit almost where it was. Then there is the Wall Street austerity party, willing to entertain tax increases (on others) as well as program cuts. And finally, the White House, with a more moderate forced march to fiscal discipline, but still a misplaced emphasis on deficit reduction.
In November 2012, if unemployment is still high, Obama will get scant credit for a better fiscal picture. He owes it to his supporters, to America's millions of idled workers, and to his own re-election prospects to pay more attention to jobs.