The voters demand action on jobs, and on Thursday night, the incumbent president running amid the worst election-year labor market in modern American history responded with the following:
A bloody evisceration of his opponent’s economic philosophy. (“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”)
A surprisingly detailed vision for incentivizing manufacturing and improving education and skills training, in order to boost medium- and long-term growth. (“Help me recruit 100,000 math and science teachers in the next ten years, and improve early childhood education. Help give two million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job”).
And still, nowhere close to the short-term jobs plan that 13 million unemployed Americans needed two years ago. Let alone next year.
Obama basically promised to continue, at current pace, the manufacturing job growth and export expansion that have proven to be two of the highlights of his economic record. He nodded to a six-year, $210 billion infrastructure plan that would, by the administration’s estimates, “support” 1 million jobs over that time. What he didn’t offer was new fuel for the sluggish recovery, new hope that a great acceleration in job growth is finally around the corner.
Friday morning’s jobs report only adds to the urgency. It shows the economy added a tepid 96,000 jobs in August, and that hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans have given up looking for work entirely.
Mitt Romney didn’t offer one either, when he accepted his party’s nomination a week earlier. He promised to spark 12 million new jobs in his first term by cutting taxes, curbing debt, and ending “uncertainty” among job creators. But hope and nebulous tax reform, without the detail required to sell Americans on the tough choices involved to pull them off, are not a strategy.
The pair's timidity is not surprising. Voters aren’t roundly endorsing whole-hog measures to boost the recovery – polls show they like infrastructure spending as a job creator, and deficit reduction, but they also don’t like big government spending programs or cuts to any of the large federal safety net programs. Congress certainly isn’t unified on job creation – it can’t even walk back from the fiscal cliff.
“Anything stimulative is almost surely off the table,” one of Obama’s former economic advisers, Jared Bernstein, said in an email Thursday. If he’s right, that’s terrible news for the unemployed. As of July, the economists at the Hamilton Project projected the U.S. economy was still 11.3 million jobs short of returning to pre-recession employment levels. Even if we somehow started growing at the red-hot pace of the 1990s, those projections say, that gap wouldn’t be closed until 2016.
We’d be awfully fortunate to find that high-growth gear with the policies offered in Obama and Romney’s convention speeches. Instead, it looks possible that the next president, whoever he is, will preside over what baseball teams call a “rebuilding year” – or four. Consumers will keep deleveraging, savings rates will stabilize, housing will slowly recover; maybe the deficit will tick down and international trade will balance out a bit.
The most direct acknowledgement of that possibility came from Vice President Joe Biden earlier Thursday evening. “We know we have more work to do,” Biden said. “We know we’re not there yet.”
Urgency, gentlemen. The voters demand it.