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 Economy.com.
“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.