The Politics of Jobs vs. High Unemployment

Even new employment figures show the US economy’s strongest job-creation performance in three years, the Obama White House knows that talking to Americans about jobs requires a delicate political dance.

The political challenge is to remind voters that progress is being made in battling unemployment as the 2010 congressional elections approach, while at the same time not appearing oblivious to the economic distress felt by the jobless.

New figures highlight both sides of the coin. On Friday, the government said employers created 162,000 jobs in March, including 48,000 temporary Census workers. But the same report noted that 15 million Americans are out of work. The number of those who have been jobless six months or more increased to a record 6.5 million.

President Obama took his job creation message on the road Friday, traveling to the North Carolina plant of Celgard LLC, which makes components used in lithium batteries. The company recently hired more workers using a $49 million Energy Department grant.

Mr. Obama hailed the new jobless numbers, saying, “today is an encouraging day.”

But he quickly added: “Economic statistics don’t do justice to the pain and anxiety that results from unemployment. Lasting unemployment takes a toll on families, takes a toll on marriages, takes a toll on children.… Being unable to find work – being able to provide for your family – that doesn’t just affect your economic security, that affects your heart and your soul.”

And meeting in his office with reporters Friday morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was equally careful to stress the work still to be done.

“Mission Not Accomplished”

“Obviously the jobs numbers are very encouraging,” Mr. Gibbs said. “But hard work continues on improving our economy. There was not an announcement that was going to be made in any form on these numbers that would have caused us to declare that the mission had been accomplished.”

Talking about an economic recovery before voters feel it in their pocketbooks is major political challenge.

“The hardest thing to do in all of political communication is how do you deal with a bad but somewhat improving economy?” says Democratic strategist James Carville.

Voters in a focus group reacted poorly to the portion of Obama’s 2010 State of the Union Address in which he defended the steps he had taken to rescue the economy, says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. “The problem is when you try to tell people who are at the heart of the deep recession … that our things are working, that we were right.… People hate it. They think it is arrogant. It means you are not in touch with their experience.”

Polls show Democrats campaigning for the fall elections are increasingly vulnerable on the economy.

Some 48 percent of Americans say Republicans in Congress would do a better job dealing with the economy, compared with 45 percent for Democrats, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Thursday. That represents a reversal from last August, when Democrats held a 52 percent to 39 percent advantage.

The same poll showed Democrats also losing ground on healthcare. In August, 51 percent of those surveyed thought Democrats would do a better job with healthcare reform than the GOP. That’s now down to 48 percent. Some 46 percent of those CNN surveyed said Republicans would do a better job on health reform.

Economy Now Gives GOP a Political Edge

“The economy – not healthcare – is the chief reason for the Republicans’ current advantage over the Democrats in the midterm congressional races,” CNN polling director Keating Holland said in a statement.

Changing that advantage will be challenging for Democrats given the likelihood that the jobless rate – which remained at 9.7 percent in March – will stay uncomfortably high for the balance of 2010.

“The unemployment rate is still terribly high and it’s going to stay unacceptably high for a long period of time,” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Thursday in an interview on NBC’s “Today” program.

Still, March’s job creation figures will make it harder for Republicans to use one of their favorite press release lines: “Where are the jobs, Mr. President?”

On Friday, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio kept up the attack on the Obama administration’s economic policies.

“A near ten-percent unemployment rate is completely unacceptable, and no amount of taxpayer-funded temporary Census workers can mask the pummeling America’s employers are taking from Washington Democrats’ job-killing agenda,” Rep. Boehner said in a statement.