Justin Wolfers, an economist known for, among other things, his sardonic wit, may have made the best comment of the day on the heels of the April jobs report out Friday. He tweeted:
"The worst part of today's jobs report? It provides just enough inane talking points for both sides of politics."
Of course, that could probably be said most first Fridays of the month during a general-election year when Democrats and Republicans try to extract any advantage they can from the latest employment report from the U.S. Labor Department.
In any event, what is or isn't considered inane is typically in the eyes of the partisan beholder. What isn't in dispute is that the party in power always tries to focus voter attention on whatever part of the report that can be seen as the half-full glass while the out of power party always points out the half-empty glass.
The report showed the economy adding the fewest jobs — 115,000 — since October. It also indicated that the percentage of people of working age who were actually working or seeking employment fell to its lowest point since 1981. That helps explain why the unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent.
Still, Obama and others in his White House stressed the positive, as you'd expect, since the greatest threat to his re-election would be the widespread perception that he doesn't have the cure for what ails the economy.
At an appearance at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA Friday morning, Obama said:
"After the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, our businesses have created more than 4.2 million new jobs over the last 26 months. More than one million jobs in the last six months alone. So that's the good news. But there are still a lot of folks out of work which means that we've got to do more. If we're going to recover all the jobs that were lost during the recession, and if we're going to build a secure economy that strengthens the middle class, than we're going to have to do more..."
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, interpreted the report as yet one more signal failure to lay at Obama's feet and another reason why he and not the Democratic president should be in the White House. On Fox News he said:
"Well, we should be seeing numbers in the 500,000 jobs created per month. This is way, way, way off from what should happen in a normal recovery. The reason that you're seeing the unemployment rate go down is because you have more people dropping out of the workforce than you have getting jobs. It's a terrible and very disappointing report this morning. Clearly the American people are wondering why this recovery isn't happening faster, why it's taking years and years for the recovery to occur and we seem to be slowing down, not speeding up. This is not progress, this is very, very disappointing and a lot of American people are having hard times and this is not good news this morning."
Actually, most economists would be ecstatic if the economy started to create 250,000 jobs a month, or half the number Romney cited. That's especially true since the Great Recession wasn't your father's typical business-cycle recession but contractions caused by a financial crisis of the type that hit in 2007 generally take much longer to recover from, according to experts like Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in their book "This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly"
If there continues to be an irony in the how the jobs situation is playing out, it's that Obama, who embodies his party's general warmth to government workers compared with Republicans, has presided over a particularly bad period for those employees. On his watch, they have seen the number of government jobs shrink significantly while private-sector jobs have expanded.
Matter of fact, one of the biggest wet blankets on the economy has been job losses at the state and city levels as recession-strapped governments have thrown teachers and other public workers overboard. The Washington Post recently examined the situation and how it has militated against Obama's efforts to boost the overall economy.
The trend continued in April, with governments cutting 13,000 jobs during the month, bringing the total government jobs lost since Obama became president in January 2009 to 607,000.
As the Post story reports, many government job cuts would've likely happened sooner, and there would have been more of them, without the stimulus money Obama and Congress directed to the states in 2009 as part of the American Recovery Act. The president was able to get some additional aid to states and locals approved by Congress but not as much as he had thought necessary.