Americans might not feel it. Some of them might not even believe it. And Republicans might continue dismissing it. But the reality is the job market is turning around. And I’m telling you, so are Democrats’ prospects. I’m not talking a month from now. I’m talking two years from now.
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For now, I don’t think September’s surprising job surge will move either the president’s poll numbers or improve Democrats’ mid-term prospects. Maybe that’s because Americans’ generally lousy economic mood is kind of baked into the electoral cake. Come 2016, however? Let’s just say, very different cake.
It’s weird, because statistically the president has a good case to make now. It’s just not nearly “enough” of a compelling case. It shouldn’t be, and we shouldn’t all be feeling this bad. After all, as I’ve discussed this week, even before this latest news of 248,000 more Americans joining the labor force, the force of the economic data has been largely going the president’s way. And now with the unemployment rate at 5.9%, the lowest it’s been in six years, vulnerable Democratic candidates will no doubt make a case for “steady as she goes.”
I suspect the facts of their case are strong. But as I’ve also reported, the basic thrust of their case remains weak. And much of that has to do with Americans still not feeling this recovery the country’s supposedly experiencing. The president is quite right to say things are better now than when he took office. Remember that the unemployment rate ticked up as high as 10% in early 2009.
No matter. Unlike other recoveries that have generally benefited the party holding power, or at least the White House, it’s not exactly playing out that way now. Much of it has to do with the quality of those jobs and the simple fact average hourly earnings remain soft. In fact, they slipped a penny in September and are up a meager 2% for the year, according to the Labor Department.
Economists also point to the generally low-paying nature of the jobs we have seen, and the fact that a disproportionate number of them are part-time.
But here’s why I think Republicans might want to avoid over-harping. Slowly, but surely, even if tepidly and anything but robustly, the economic trend has been the president’s friend. And given the anemic nature of this recovery and the fact that overall GDP growth is half the 4 or 5% advance we typically see after a recession, an argument could be made for this trend -- weak as it is -- to not running out of steam for quite some time.
As things stand now, this recovery is statistically long in the tooth. Economists tell me we’re due for a pullback or at the very least, a dip. But because this turnaround has been so slow, many of those same egg-heads believe it will stay steady, and remain in place for at least the next two years.
By now, you see where I’m going, and why I think Republicans should be doing some navel-gazing. Even a tepid recovery beats no recovery, and some growth beats no growth. If the unemployment rate continues falling, suddenly the president’s case, and that of Democrats in general, becomes more compelling.
I can hear their convention speeches now -- heralding an unemployment rate falling and a market soaring. Even now, both are substantially off their worst levels -- the Dow and S&P 500 have more than doubled and the great housing meltdown has at least stopped melting down.
Critics of this “stealth surge” like to insist Americans don’t feel it, and they’re right. But the more it improves, the more difficult “political” critics’ argument gets. Don’t get me wrong -- by almost every economic measure, Americans are not embracing or even “seeing” this improvement. Real wages are going nowhere, and interest in housing isn’t going anywhere. A whole generation of Americans is so burned on real estate, and stocks for that matter, that they’ve refused to even participate in either. That remains telling, and for Democrats, un-nerving.
But those same Democrats might offer nothing more than a simple comparison to voters two years from now -- would you rather have the numbers slightly ticking up or go back to that time Republicans were in charge and they were melting down? It’s a perverted argument, but a politically appealing one. And Republicans would be wise to see the ink on the wall, and the data it reflects.
Again, not great data. Not compelling data. Not even promising data. But better data, and trending data. That’s why I think Republicans would be wise to offer a vision for something better than one “mildly better.” That means not just dismissing a recovery that seems statistically real, but laying out a vision for a recovery that Americans will know is real.
I suspect the days of just dissing data are quickly dwindling. But I also suspect the days of offering a plan to get more Americans believing in something much more substantial are fast approaching. Merely running out the clock and hoping the doom and gloom persists won’t cut it -- especially if the clock on really bad stuff is potentially running out.
So word to the Republican wise -- wise up and make the case fast for how you plan to get things revving up. Just remember what happened after your last mid-term win four years ago. You took the House. But two years later, you couldn’t close the deal and take the White House.
That’s history. Don’t assume that just pouncing on doom is going to produce any different history.