WASHINGTON - President Obama's decision to name Jacob Lew, his chief of staff and former budget director, to be his Treasury secretary sent a depressing signal that the economy and jobs won't be his highest priority in a second term.
With unemployment remaining stubbornly high in the fifth year of his presidency, the job of Treasury secretary cries out for a hard- driving, corporate chief executive with strong economic credentials.
Instead, Obama intends to pick Lew who has reigned over his big spending budgets (and five consecutive trillion dollar deficits), and more recently has run the West Wing operation as its manager in chief. The intricate details of economic policy and growth economics are not part of his portfolio.
"The selection signals that Obama's second term will not initially focus on big new ideas to create jobs," the Washington Post declared Thursday in a front page story on the president's decision to tap his liberal political soul-mate and fellow law school graduate.
If you are among the more than 12 million unemployed, or the millions more who have been forced to take a low-paying part-time job because you couldn't find good, full-time employment, this is hopeless news indeed.
Lew, a former top aide to Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill in the 1980s, has been the Obama administration's chief defender of its wildly out-of-control big spending policies. And he will play a pivotal role in the fiscal battles to come over the debt ceiling increase and budget policies that will dominate Congress's agenda over the next three months or more.
Obama's decision sadly speaks volumes about where jobs and the economy fit into his second term agenda -- on the middle-to-back burner. He hasn't been talking much about either of late, and there's no sign he intends to offer another plan to get a slowing economy moving again.
Can he get away with that? Apparently he can and thus far he has, with not a peep out of the national news media that has shamelessly covered for him, despite four painful years of an anemic economy (barely crawling along at a 2 percent growth rate) and unemployment skirting 8 percent or more.
Take, for example, last week's jobs report for the month of December from the Labor Department which reported that employment rose by 155,000, though the jobless rate remained stuck at 7.8 percent.
That's because Americans who could not find a full-time job said they stopped looking for work and thus were subtracted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the ranks of the unemployed.
This is a sorry record for a chief executive who ran on putting America back to work. But the jobs issue of late has all but vanished from the nation's conciousness and dialogue. In part, because the numbers have been sugar coated by the national news media and all but ignored by the national nightly network news.
Last week, newspapers reported that the mediocre job numbers for December "held steady" and showed that the economy was still creating jobs at a "steady pace." That's like boasting a struggling student's persistent C-minus average "held steady" despite no sign of improvement.
For example, the Washington Post focused its glowing story on the increasing jobs in the nation's construction industry (30,000), but conveniently ignored or played down that much of the weak job growth came in food services and "drinking places" (nearly 40,000) where wages are low.
Here are few examples from last Friday's BLS report that you didn't hear on the nightly network news shows:
-- "In December, the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was essentially unchanged at 4.8 million and accounted for 39.1 percent of the unemployed."
-- "Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult women (7.3 percent) and blacks (14 percent) edged up in December, while the rates for adult men (7.2 percent), teenagers (23.5 percent), whites (6.9 percent), and Hispanics (9.6 percent) showed little or no change."
-- "The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers), at 7.9 million, changed little in December. These individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job."
-- "In December, 2.6 million persons were marginally attached to the labor force, essentially unchanged from a year earlier... These individuals were not in the labor force, wanted and were available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months."
Note: these 2.6 million Americans were not added to the BLS's 12.2 million jobless number "because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey."
It's hard to find a hard, critical analysis that these jobs numbers demand, but James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute think tank provided one last week. It's headline: "Dismal December jobs report shows another lost year for U.S. workers." It deserves a wider audience.
December's BLS number "was the same old, same old. The increase in total nonfarm payroll employment was only a smidgen better than the average 2012 employment growth of 153,000 jobs per month," Pethokoukis writes.
"And that was exactly the same as the average monthly gain for 2011," he adds. "And at that pace, the U.S. won't return to pre-Great Recession employment levels until after 2025, according to the Jobs Gap calculated from the Hamilton Project."
And consider these stats from his devastating analysis:
-- 14.4 percent: The real unemployment rate when you add part- timers who want full-time jobs and discouraged workers who still can't find a job.
-- 10.7 percent: The unemployment rate if the declining labor force participation rate was at its higher January 2009 level.
-- 5.2 percent: The jobless rate Team Obama forecast for December 2012 if Congress passed his $800 billion job stimulus.
If you're still buying into Obama's jobs claim that "we're making progress" and "moving forward," you've made the Washington news media very happy.
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