The outcome of the upcoming electoral battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will depend on public perceptions of the president’s economic stewardship, with particular emphasis on his performance on the all-important issue of jobs.
Has the White House compiled an impressive record of “putting Americans back to work” as the Democrats proudly boast, or did administration policies actually delay normal processes of recovery, taking a bad situation and “making it worse” as the Romney campaign insists?
Leaving aside the dubious nature of the proposition that any president actually creates jobs (other than new hires for the White House), there’s an easy way to cut through the dizzying flurry of conflicting statistics that partisans on both sides passionately promote: checking the raw, readily available data from the Department of Labor on how many Americans are working today compared with the number who held jobs at the end of the Bush administration.
By that standard, the nation unequivocally lost jobs in the first 39 months of the Obama presidency: with 142,287,000 working in May, 2012 (the most recent statistics available) compared with 143,338,000 at the end of December, 2008—the last employment numbers announced under President George W. Bush.
Moreover, these job losses occurred at a time of rapid population growth, with more than 8,100,000 new American residents (through both birth and immigration) over the same period. This explains the more dramatic increase of those listed by the government as “unemployed” (from 11,108,000 to 12,720,000) and the even more notable rise among those “not in the labor force” (from 80,588,000 all the way to 87,958,000).
With 342,000 Americans in April alone giving up on the search for a job, the overall percentage of work-age population either employed or looking for work dropped in April to 63.6 percent—the lowest level since December, 1981, in the darkest days of the disastrous Carter-Reagan recession. The slight uptick in labor force participation in May—0.2 percent—hardly removes the sting from disastrous numbers for the overall job market.
In other words, statistics strongly support the common perception that jobs remain fiendishly difficult to find, despite the administration’s happy talk about a burgeoning recovery. The president may not qualify as the catastrophic job killer of GOP caricature, but he can hardly claim the gleaming mantle of a robust job creator.