05/08/2011 09:55 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2011

The Jobs Numbers and the President's Job

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:

  • Fourteen million people are still officially unemployed, and millions more have given up looking for work.
  • Counting those out of the labor force or working part time but wanting full time jobs, the total number of unemployed or underemployed was just under 25 million -- not significantly better than at the pit of the recession. The number of people with involuntary part time work actually rose by 167,000 in April.
  • Among young workers, 24 or younger, the jobless rate was a sickening 17.6 percent. And among African Americans, 16.1 percent were out of work. These happen to be two groups who voted with great enthusiasm for the president in 2008.
  • Despite the growth in employment, the overall percentage of Americans in the labor force did not increase. The workforce is still more than a million people smaller than it was a year ago -- meaning that the economy will need to grow at a much faster rate to soak up the unemployed.
  • There still 5.8 million workers who have been jobless for more than six months, still close to an economic record. The longer they stay unemployed, the less likely they are to ever find a job. Employers tend to give preference to job seekers who have jobs, or who have been out of work for short periods.
  • While the private sector added more than a quarter million jobs, the public sector kept laying off workers. State and local government shrank by another 22,000 in April. This is a confession of a policy failure. In a severe economic downturn, government should be adding jobs to make up for the softness of the private sector. But with austerity fever sweeping both parties, the idea of a public jobs program is off the table.

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.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.