The “Save or Create” Debate

Keeping track of the White House’s job numbers

The stimulus is a complex, unwieldy piece of legislation, and measuring the bill’s effects has been devilishly difficult. This week, job creation was the indicator in question; but despite a slew of attempts, press coverage turned a straight numbers issue into a partisan issue, and failed to achieve consensus or clarity about how to track the number of positions the bill will create. While the national press wrestled over the statistics, regional reports did not conform to the touted headlines, continuing to report growing jobless claims, and local governments stretched thin.

Earlier this week, President Obama urged lawmakers to accelerate stimulus spending, in hopes of creating or saving 600,000 jobs by the end of the summer. Already, 150,000 jobs had been created through the stimulus, Obama said. In response, House Minority Leader John Boehner slammed the stimulus bill for failing to prevent increasing unemployment claims—now at 9.4 percent nationally. To reconcile these two disparate takes on the economy, The New York Times surveyed experts, arriving at some soft conclusions:

Independent experts say those figures — estimates based on macroeconomic models and projections — are plausible, although they say it is very difficult to measure the number of jobs created.


By spotlighting specific projects that he expects will get under way this summer, Mr. Obama may be trying to use his presidential platform to prod states into spending the federal dollars at a critical period, when the weather is more conducive to construction projects in the Northeast and teenagers are free to work, giving a temporary boost to the job market, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s

“The economy is at a very key juncture,” Mr. Zandi said. “We are right at a turning point from recession to recovery. If they can juice things up just even a bit, that may make a big difference.”

Confusing matters more, Republican operative Tony Fratto has been criticizing President Obama’s aspirations to “create or save” jobs as too vague to be held accountable. Fratto, quoted by Wall Street Journal Main Street columnist William McGurn, criticized the press for letting Obama’s job claims stand unchallenged:

Mr. Fratto sees a double standard at play. “We would never have used a formula like ‘save or create,’” he tells me. “To begin with, the number is pure fiction — the administration has no way to measure how many jobs are actually being ‘saved.’ And if we [the Bush administration] had tried to use something this flimsy, the press would never have let us get away with it.”

Of course, the inability to measure Mr. Obama’s jobs formula is part of its attraction. Never mind that no one — not the Labor Department, not the Treasury, not the Bureau of Labor Statistics — actually measures “jobs saved.” As the New York Times delicately reports, Mr. Obama’s jobs claims are “based on macroeconomic estimates, not an actual counting of jobs.” Nice work if you can get away with it.

Media Matters has debunked Fratto’s claims about the Bush administration’s own repeated usage of the “save and create.” But their criticism didn’t get to the heart of the matter.

The jobs issue isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a numbers issue. Unlike politically tinged topics like reproductive rights, employment opportunities for Americans aren’t intrinsically associated with either Democrats or Republicans. And while the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus, may not have passed with strong bipartisan support, its goals—energizing local economies and getting people back to work—are supported by both parties.

Eventually, the question of how many jobs the ARRA creates will be touted as either a measure of success or failure for the Democrats and President Obama. But while both parties will attempt to spin the numbers, pulling the stats in either direction as statistical manipulators always do, it’s essential for the press to provide clearheaded explanations about these figures. The job numbers may or may not meet the president’s goal, but it’s the press’s job to wrest control over the counting from the political parties.

But both the Times and the WSJ framed the numbers debate politically, offering contrasting quotes from Republicans and Democrats in criticism and defense of the stimulus. McGurn attempted to balance his piece, quoting Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who was also critical of the jobs numbers.

As reporters nationally and locally try to figure out exactly how the stimulus will work and how many jobs will be created, the political frame shouldn’t be the go-to frame. We need deep, explanatory journalism to help readers understand just how jobless claims are determined in the first place, and how and when stimulus money may address the unemployment problems. While the administration made optimistic claims that the legislation would offer quick relief, deeper reporting could help explain the myriad local bureaucracies that stand in the way of speed.

As our local headline surveys have shown, many stimulus-funded projects are still in discussion phases, despite the early promises of shovel-ready plans that were ready to go on day one. Instead states, and counties are carving up their chunks of cash, and choosing projects and contractors—which means it’s still too early to tell how many jobs will be created. What’s more, some states are still in the early stages of setting up their accountability measures that are designed to track the money. For now, the Republicans seem like they’re winning the job-counting debate, but the victory is founded on spin, not clear information. This is where reporters can serve as referees, and provide the facts necessary to help readers understand both the political rhetoric and their job prospects.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.