A tiny, routine revision in some jobs data could have a big political payoff for President Obama.
The Labor Department on Thursday morning quietly released a new benchmark for payroll employment in the U.S. It turns out that with the revision, there has been net job growth -- not much, but more than nothing -- during Obama's first term.
According to the revision, total non-farm payrolls stood at 133.686 million jobs in August, up from 133.561 million in January 2009, when Obama's first term began. Before the revision, payrolls were at 133.300 million in August.
In other words, 125,000 jobs have been created, in total, during Obama's first term, compared with a prior estimate of a loss of 261,000.
This is obviously a very small difference, but it takes away a weapon that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, has used repeatedly to hit Obama: the claim that there has been a net job loss since he took office.
That claim was arguably unfair in any event, given the state of the economy when Obama took on the worst job in America: The economy was shedding about 750,000 jobs per month just before and after his inauguration. With the new benchmark revisions, it added about 194,000 jobs per month in the year up to March 2012, according to Wharton economics professor Justin Wolfers.
The BLS regularly adjusts its payroll data to account for hard unemployment insurance data from the states. The next revision is scheduled for February 2013. In the latest revision, as of March 2012, U.S. non-farm payrolls were 386,000 jobs higher than first estimated. The BLS noted that these revisions are so tiny that they are not considered statistically significant -- representing just 0.3 percent of total non-farm payrolls.
If not for deep cuts in government jobs, net job growth in Obama's first term probably would have turned positive long ago. The BLS revision raised private payrolls by 453,000 jobs, but lowered government payrolls by 67,000. That means, in total, federal, state and local government payrolls are 743,000 jobs lower than they were when Obama took office. Private payrolls, in contrast, are 868,000 jobs higher than when Obama took office, including the benchmark revision.
These numbers do not change the unemployment rate, because they are derived from a survey of businesses that is separate from the household survey that determines the unemployment rate. Unemployment is still too high at 8.1 percent, and job growth has weakened noticeably in recent months -- Thursday's benchmark revisions don't change that.
Still, by taking away one big talking point from Romney, these revisions could be politically significant.
Update: A couple of points of context: Including today's benchmark revision, about 4.4 million jobs have been created, in total, since February 2010, when payrolls finally hit bottom after the recession. We're still about 4.3 million jobs away from peak employment in January 2008.