© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Final Pre-Election Jobs Report Can Be Spun By Both Obama And Romney

President Obama gives a girl a high five at a campaign rally in Hilliard, Ohio, on Nov. 2.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama gives a girl a high five at a campaign rally in Hilliard, Ohio, on Nov. 2.

(Revised @ 12 p.m. ET)

The final monthly jobs report before Tuesday's general election contained something for both President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney to work into their closing arguments to voters.

For Obama, it was the news that the economy in October created significantly more jobs — 171,000 — than many economists had forecast. And the Labor Department revised upward the job numbers for September and August, suggesting even more underlying strength in the economy than earlier appeared to be the case.

Furthermore, though the jobless rate ticked up a tenth of a percentage point to 7.9 percent, it was still under the psychologically important threshold of 8 percent — on balance a positive for Obama.

At a campaign rally in the all-important battleground state of Ohio, the town of Hilliard to be precise, Obama told supporters:

"In 2008, we were in the middle of two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And today our businesses have created nearly five-and-a-half million new jobs. And this morning we learned that companies hired more workers in October than at any time in the last eight months."

But it was the slight increase in the unemployment rate that gave Romney more fodder for his argument that Obama's policies had gotten in the way of a more robust economic revival. At a rally in Wisconsin, Romney said of Obama:

"He said that the unemployment rate would now be 5.2 percent; today we learned that it is 7.9 percent — it is 9 million jobs short of what he promised. Unemployment is higher today than when Barack Obama took office."

As journalistic fact checkers have noted ad nauseam, Obama never said the jobless rate would be 5.2 percent at this point. (Romney has lowered the number. He used to cite the percentage as 5.4 percent.)

After he was elected president but before his inauguration, his economic team produced a document as part of the president-elect's argument for an economic stimulus that forecast what the jobless rate could fall to with such government intervention. But the forecast was heavily qualified as being just an educated guess whose accuracy was dependent on many conditions, some unforeseen.

Another point: The jobless rate is known as a lagging indicator, meaning it trails what the economy is actually doing because it takes awhile for employers to respond to economic conditions, sometimes many months, with hiring and firing. So any objective economist would tell you that it's not at all surprising that the jobless rate would be higher now than when Obama took office. Hiring is likely still lagging behind the true state of the economy.

But many voters, for whatever reason, aren't aware of these facts.

In any event, because Friday's news essentially continues the trend of private-sector job creation that is nearly three years old and demonstrates that the economy is steadily if slowly improving, the report is unlikely to change the trajectory of the presidential race.

Experts on presidential elections generally agree that voters have by and large made up their minds by this stage about how they feel the president has handled the economy.

That is especially true as an ever increasing amount of critical swing-state votes are cast well before the issuance of the final employment report from the Labor Department.

But on balance, the report had more good news than bad for Obama. In addition to unexpectedly strong job creation for October and revisions of September and August, the labor force participation was higher, an indication that more people were feeling confident about finding work. That's what nudged the jobless rate up.

Also, there was a drop in the number of part-time workers who preferred to work full-time but couldn't get jobs with the additional hours.

But, as with the jobless rate being a lagging indicator, that gets to a level of detail most voters don't really know or care about. That's what should allow Romney to add the slight upswing in the jobless rate in Friday's report as one more arrow in the quiver of his rhetorical case against the president's re-election.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!