Forty years ago, high-end computer and audiotape manufacturer Memorex ran a classic television ad in which jazz great Ella Fitzgerald sings a high note and shatters a wine glass. Then her taped music plays with glass-shattering crystal clarity, and an announcer asks, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”
Today, economists and others closely watching the U.S. economy are asking of last Friday’s unexpected drop in the national unemployment rate from 9.0 to 8.6 percent, “Is it real or is it an outlier?” For avid watchers of the 2012 elections, it is a very important question as well because the economy, and specifically unemployment, is the chief dark cloud hovering over President Obama’s reelection prospects.
Changes in the neighborhood of four-tenths of a percentage point in the overall unemployment rate from one month to the next don’t happen often. In fact, it’s happened only three times in the last five years (the rate jumped five-tenths of a point once in that period). It’s also important to note that each month’s numbers are subject to later revision.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ November release noted that the month’s reading was outside of the 9.0-9.2 percent range that had held from April through October. In addition, the U-6 unemployment rate, an alternative measurement of those who are unemployed, are working part-time but seeking full-time work, or have given up looking, dropped six-tenths of a point, from 16.2 to 15.6 percent.
The movement in the new report is noteworthy and something that should be watched very carefully, barring later revision. It could signal the beginning of a real trend. At the same time, we should remember the adage, “one month does not a trend make.” The December numbers will be released on Friday, Jan. 6.
Some economists express considerable skepticism about the significance of the shift. They point to the decline in the civilian labor force participation rate to 64 percent, its lowest mark since the early 1980s. This is cited as an explanation for the drop: Very simply, the unemployment rate may have fallen because more people gave up looking for work. It’s worth noting that the 39-page release from the BLS contains an enormous amount of data from two separate surveys, one of households and the other of establishments, with different data often sending conflicting signals.
Democrats note that under President Reagan, unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent in November and December of 1982—seven-tenths of a point worse than the 10.1 percent peak for Obama’s term in October 2009. However, the rate had dropped to 8.5 percent in November 1983, one year before Reagan’s 49-state landslide victory. That Reagan’s unemployment rate a year out from the general election was only one-tenth of a point better than Obama’s is quite something, if it is real.
Reagan’s first-term unemployment rate went on to drop to 7.4 percent in October 1984, in the last set of numbers released before the election; the subsequent November 1984 rate was 7.2 percent. However, virtually no economists expect unemployment numbers to improve that much by the end of next year. The two most optimistic of the 54 top economists surveyed last month by Blue Chip Economic Indicators foresaw unemployment dropping to 8.3 percent. The latest Fed November meeting minutes indicate that the most hopeful of the Federal Reserve Board members and Federal Reserve Bank presidents predicted an unemployment rate only down to 8.1 percent.
Needless to say, the pessimistic forecasts were very different: 8.9 percent for the most bearish Fed member canvassed and 10.3 percent for the most fretful Blue Chip forecaster.
Still, the narrative of this presidential race would change enormously if unemployment were to drop anywhere near 8.0 percent, so this is something important to watch. Unemployment has hovered at 9.0 percent or higher for 28 of the last 31 months. This was also true for 28 out of the 34 complete months (leaving out his partial month of January 2009) that Obama has been in office. The precise weight of the economic millstone around his neck is an important factor.
Lest anyone get carried away, the pros still think the November jobless number was an outlier. But even if the 8.6 percent rate isn’t revised upward and is replicated in subsequent monthly reports, some key elements of the Democratic base—the groups that turbo-charged Obama’s White House victory—are still facing tough economic headwinds that could affect their enthusiasm and turnout next year. The November unemployment rate among African-Americans was 15.5 percent. Among Hispanics, it was 11.4 percent. For 18 to 19 year-olds, the jobless rate was a whopping 23.6 percent; 20 to 24 year-olds saw a 14.2 percent rate; and 25 to 34 year-olds came in at 9.2 percent.
Tough economic times, added to disappointment from perhaps unrealistically high expectations about hope and change that Obama could deliver, could weigh down his popularity with minority and young voters. But by how much would it affect the 9.6 million popular-vote and 95 Electoral College-vote margins that he enjoyed in 2008?
This article appears in the Dec. 6, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.