In the high stakes of political combat, perceptions can matter as much as, or more than, reality. Maybe that's why Barack Obama's numbers are creeping up in some polls.
The latest New York Times/CBS News poll reports that Obama's overall job approval score has risen to 50 percent. Pundits and other pollsters tell us the improvement is largely due to a belief among a growing number of Americans that the economy is showing signs of improvement.
The official unemployment rate as determined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has fallen to 8.3 percent, and BLS tells us that 243,000 jobs were created in the private sector last month. Stocks have climbed nicely in the past couple of weeks, improving worker retirement accounts, and that has fed perceptions that the economic recovery is at last gaining some strength.
Whether Obama's big spending on public works programs have had anything to do with this is food for a very vigorous debate, but that's another matter.
But "facts are stubborn things," as John Adams once said, and Americans are not entirely convinced that the economy is as fully on the mend as Obama wants us to believe. In fact, the Times/CBS poll says more Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy (50 percent) than approve (44 percent).
They also give him very poor marks on his handling of the budget deficit -- a top concern among voters this year. It has been menacingly hovering between $1.4 trillion and $1.3 trillion in the last three years under his command and is headed for another $1.3 trillion deficit next year.
A whopping 59 percent give him bad fiscal grades on this issue.
But there are other, more trustworthy polls that suggest many Americans still harbor doubts about how good a job Obama is doing overall, and about his handling of the economy and the budget deficit that threatens to engulf our country in debt for generations to come. The venerable and highly respected Gallup Poll, which conducts daily tracking polls throughout the country, has put the president's weekly average job approval score in the mid-40s for several months now.
Gallup reported Thursday that just 43 percent approved of the job he is doing, while 48 percent disapproved.
Americans are busy people, struggling to earn a living, pay their mortgages and make ends meet. They hear on the nightly network news that unemployment has fallen to 8.3 percent, and it sounds like good news -- but the shallow TV reports leave out the facts that would give that figure a much gloomier context.
These numbers are all contained in the BLS's report, but who has time to read all that? Often, not the network news reporters.
Here are a few excerpts from the government's January report that shed more light on the Obama administration's declining jobs numbers:
-- By January, 2.8 million persons had dropped out of the labor force after "looking for a job sometimes in the prior 12 months."
-- More than 1.1 million of these dropouts were classified as "discouraged workers" in January, and so they were not counted among the unemployed. "The remaining 1.7 million had not searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey."
-- In January, there were a total of 7.3 million job losers and persons who had completed temporary jobs but with no new employment in sight.
-- The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) stood at 5.5 million and accounted for 42.9 percent of the unemployed.
-- The number of persons working only part-time for economic reasons remained relatively unchanged at 8.2 million. They were working part-time "because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job."
The Gallup Poll, much to its credit, believes that the government's 8.3 percent jobless rate does not reflect a complete picture of unemployment in America today. So it offers and regularly publishes its "underemployment rate," based on its national surveys. Their underemployment rate stood at 19 percent on Thursday.
As for remedying this situation, Congress is preparing to vote on a significantly slimmed down version of the president's jobs plan -- slashing it from $425 billion to $150 billion. But there is nothing in this bill that will create many jobs.
Its chief provisions include a 10-month extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut for workers, and extending unemployment benefits until the end of the year.
The payroll tax holiday cut the tax on wages from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for workers, but there's little or no evidence this is producing many jobs. That will require tax cuts for businesses, especially small businesses, and the president's campaign agenda calls for raising taxes on the very people who create or expand businesses.
Extending unemployment benefits, as welcome as it is for the unemployed, is a safety-net program that does not create any new jobs.
As Obama limps into the fourth year of his presidency, his record on the economy has been a dismal one that has given us anemic, sub-par growth, as well as misery for millions of jobless workers and struggling businesses.
As for the faint signs of modest recovery we are seeing, we can thank the ingenuity, ambition, resilience and spirit of enterprise in the American business community.
The only thing holding us back now is Obama.
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