Jobs, Jobs, Jobs?

As press coverage falters, the Washington conversation keeps shifting

The stubborn unemployment rate may be the biggest economic issue facing the country. But the business press’s coverage hasn’t kept up with the story—and the push for jobs isn’t getting the traction in the Washington conversation that it deserves.

As The New York Times puts it today,

A year that Democrats decreed would be about “jobs, jobs, jobs” has produced a far different check list as its sixth month nears: health care, financial regulation, energy, a nuclear arms treaty and a Supreme Court vacancy, as well as investigations into a mine accident, a calamitous oil spill, a failed terrorist attack in Times Square and alleged Wall Street fraud.

That crowded calendar of priorities largely explains why the employment bills have languished, Democrats say. They hope to change that starting this week.

And so, the president is in Youngstown, Ohio, and Democrats in Congress say they’re ready to try again on a jobs bill.

But the back-to-jobs tale is one we’ve heard before. Here’s The Hill, just two weeks ago:

House Democrats are “all about jobs,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday, but the party’s effort to keep a laser-like focus on the economy is proving easier said than done.
Yet by the time the Speaker arrived at the word of the day, she had already digressed to two other issues dominating the headlines, commenting on the arrest of a suspect in connection with the attempted Times Square bombing and deflecting a question on the Gulf Coast oil spill.

There’s a real risk here that, without sustained coverage of the unemployment story—including the 6.7 million people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more—the issue will just keep slipping and slipping. That’s not good for those looking for work, or for the rest of the economy.

Bill Galston, a former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, recently spelled out why that wouldn’t be good for Democrats, either.

Elementary prudence would seem to dictate that the leadership would quickly pivot to the economy and would sustain that focus through the spring and summer. The small-bore jobs bill was a start, and the far more significant financial reforms will advance the case. But now, the leadership is moving toward, or backing into, months dominated by some combination of immigration and climate change—and of course there will also be a Supreme Court confirmation battle to fight. It is hard to believe that the people will respond favorably.

The Wall Street Journal picked up on a related theme, using Tuesday’s primaries to look at the “brewing rebellion among the white, working-class voters” within the Democratic ranks.

Democratic strategists said their party faces great peril if it is unable to find candidates this year who can shore up the connection with white, blue-collar voters who are trending toward the GOP. Mr. Obama won election in 2008 thanks largely to highly energized minority voters and liberal whites, but white voters like these in northeastern Pennsylvania were crucial to building a majority.

Which isn’t to say that Democrats are finished before they really start.

In a piece that bounced quickly through the blogosphere, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein did a bit of employment math that offered them a way to talk about jobs that voters might like.

If the economy produces jobs over the next eight months at the same pace as it did over the past four months, the nation will have created more jobs in 2010 alone than it did over the entire eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency.

That makes quite an impression, doesn’t it?

Brownstein quickly notes that his calculations come “with many footnotes and asterisks. But it shows how the economic debate between the parties could look very different over time—perhaps by November, more likely by 2012. More important, the comparison underscores the urgency of repairing an American job-creation machine that was sputtering long before the 2008 financial meltdown.”

I’m with him on the urgency.

As for his math, those asterisks might not be enough.

Here’s Brownstein:

From February 2001, Bush’s first full month in office, through January 2009, his last, total U.S. nonfarm employment grew from 132.5 million to 133.5 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s an increase, obviously, of just 1 million. From January through April of this year, the economy created 573,000 jobs. Over a full year, that projects to 1.72 million jobs.

But, as he admits, that’s ignoring Obama’s first year, when nearly 4 million jobs were lost. Comparing all eight years of the Bush administration with just one year of the Obama administration really doesn’t seem legit.

Brownstein acknowledges that he’s playing with the numbers. The point, he says, is that hearty job creation would help Democrats “argue that their agenda has started to turn the tide.”

The way his analysis rocketed around shows that it has some appeal.

But it also showed how dangerous such apples-to-oranges comparisons can be, especially if it’s just the oranges that get reported.

TPM, for example, ran Brownstein’s eye-catching “if” paragraph under the headline that declared, “It’s Getting Better All The Time.”

And while the post noted that “[t]here’s a lot riding on the ‘if’ in Brownstein’s sentence,” it moved quickly to the “reasonably likely scenario that the economy will continue to produce jobs at the current rate.” No footnotes. No asterisks. Just a link. That’s sloppy.

Of course, if the business press did a better job tracking these numbers, we wouldn’t need a primer on Brownstein’s math.

As we’ve said, often, the unemployment story is a hard one to tell. It demands creativity. But it’s not going away, not soon. And not without a bit more work from the press, to make sure it gets the attention it deserves in Washington.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at