Economists estimate that 110,000 jobs need to be added each month just to accommodate the rising population and keep the unemployment rate steady. So, as we continue to evaluate the dismal jobs report for the month of May, with 8.2 percent unemployment and only 69,000 new jobs created (a far cry away from 158,000 originally estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), I can't help but think about the story behind the numbers. Because, the monthly unemployment information isn't just another report -- it gives insight into the underlying morale and confidence of our country. A job created is an opportunity born, and a step towards economic prosperity. A person remaining in the unemployment line is one more underutilized and under-fulfilled American. So, how did we get here?
When President Obama entered office in January 2009, he was riding a tidal wave of enthusiastic support. Voters had written him a blank check in hopes that he would bring "change" to a broken and divided Washington, offering him a unique opportunity to address some of the country's biggest problems in the midst of a hard-hitting recession. Expectations were high, and so were the stakes. At the time, we were losing more than 500,000 jobs per month, unemployment sat at 7.2 percent (the highest rate since 1993), and the financial sector was in shambles. As such, the Obama administration took steps towards improving the economic environment, including a broad-based stimulus package and support for homeowners (we can leave the debate on their efficacy for another day). But Obama also focused (or even distracted) his Administration and Congress on other policy initiatives.
Within his first few months in office, Obama made it clear that health system reform would be the landmark legislation of his term -- a move that severely divided Capitol Hill, and set a tone of partisanship throughout Washington. And beyond health reform, he made a number of high-visibility, partisan jabs (a great example being the signing of an executive order to shutter Guantanamo on his first acting day as President). Through these actions, he quickly lost his ability to bring the country together to get the big things done. Forgotten were the days of Obama the "uniter," in favor of politics as usual.
So, coming up on four years later, we sit with a divided Washington and a country in desperate need of leadership and real reform. Over that time, we haven't addressed the true structural impediments required to ensure America's preeminence throughout the 21st century and beyond. We have focused on the short-term and tactical, rather than the long-term and strategic (the debt ceiling debate is just one example). Businesses continue to face an uncertain regulatory environment (primarily due to the impending health reform decision), with an ever-antiquated corporate tax code riddled with loopholes that is one of the highest in the developed world (maybe Simpson-Bowles wasn't so crazy, huh?), and a growing national debt. While the President can point to isolated progress on some fronts (Axelrod will tell you four million jobs have been created since Obama took office), the overall economy is still suffering. Put simply, until the underlying ailments of our economy are cured, we'll still exhibit symptoms of a recession. The President would serve himself well to begin speaking to these broader reforms as the campaign continues, while hoping the economy turns around. At this point, it certainly seems to be out of his control.
At the end of the day, improving our economy is giving the dignity of a job to a friend, neighbor or family member. It's the confidence that begins to build in communities across America that signifies we're rebounding, and that we can't be kept down. So, while the media and political class continue to dig into the numbers, it's ultimately the story behind the numbers that will determine the election. People won't be voting for Obama or Romney based on an exact unemployment rate or number of jobs created each month, they'll be voting based on whether they feel better or worse off after four years of the current President. Each of May's 69,000 jobs created represents part of that story, but so do the 13 million unemployed looking for work. Needless to say, Obama has his work cut out for him.