It’s Labor Day, and the candidates enjoying the best current odds of being the next president will be acutely focused on the topic that the American public has long been trying to tell them is their chief concern: jobs.
President Obama, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have packed their schedules with appearances devoted to what promises to be an enduring narrative of the 2012 campaign: How to restore the nation’s ability to create and sustain jobs and, just as important, its confidence in its ability to do so.
The holiday is a perennial tacking point on the political calendar, the day a little over a year out from the election when voters begin to force the candidates competing for their affections to stash the vanity exercises and start addressing the things they care about. The week is loaded with events either expressly about employment progress or sure to dwell on it.
“We haven’t really produced jobs for 20 years,” said Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska. “We’ve totally disconnected education skill sets from what was coming. We’re not going to get most of those jobs back, that 10 percent unemployment. I mean our politicians keep saying if you elect me I’m going to get that down to 4 or 5 percent. That’s not true. Maybe some of them don’t know it’s true. Those jobs are gone.”
On Tuesday, Romney, who ran for president in 2008 and appears to have lost his grip on the Republican front-runner role, lays out his jobs plan in North Las Vegas, Nevada, the state suffering from the nation’s highest unemployment. He previewed aspects of it on Friday, telling the Republican National Hispanic Assembly in Tampa that he would spur job creation by bringing government spending to 20 percent or less of gross domestic product and eliminate reams of regulations on businesses. The speech will be his first major address since Perry overtook him in national polls in late August. Romney is sure to highlight his long and lucrative private-sector career to contrast his background with Perry, a three-term governor who has spent most of his professional life in government.
The next day, on Wednesday, Perry joins Romney and the other Republican contenders in his first debate appearance since officially joining the primary fray on Aug. 13. Eight GOP contenders are scheduled to hold their third debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. It will be hosted jointly by Politico and NBC News. Count on Perry working in a mention of job-creation numbers in Texas on his watch. He has claimed that 40 percent of the jobs created nationally since 2009 were generated by his state, but it remains unclear whether he can persuade voters that the oil industry and military projects in the state weren’t the real engines of job growth.
Another Republican in the contest, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, was the first major candidate to lay out a jobs plan. Stumping in New Hampshire, the state that is key to his hopes of getting past Romney and Perry on the road to the nomination, Hunstman last week outlined a proposal that would lower individual and corporate rates while eradicating tax-code complications like loopholes, deductions, and subsidies as a means of spurring job creation.
The stakes could not be higher this week, or less pliable, for the Democrat in the contest, Obama, facing the worst jobs numbers of any post-World War II chief executive at this point in his presidency. He is set to deliver what could be a pivotal address to Congress on jobs and the economy on Thursday in the aftermath of an especially dismal government report that showed zero change in the number of new jobs created in August and an unemployment rate stuck at 9.1 percent. That news came on the heels of the nation’s credit rating being downgraded for the first time in history, the creation of a new congressional committee charged with devising large-scale deficit reduction legislation, and continued turbulence in the markets reflecting Wall Street’s disdain for Washington’s problem-solving capabilities.
His remarks will be notable less for the policies he proposes—which face circumscribed chances of passing in the Republican-controlled House—than for how they register on the public’s diminishing confidence meter. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the last president to win reelection when the Election Day jobless rate was above 7.2 percent, a number that must look awfully good to the White House right now.
If, starting Thursday, Obama can change the vocabulary of the debate to which party can be more trusted to create jobs, he will have at least made the terms of the discussion more favorable. He kicks off his week with an appearance in Detroit on Monday with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The union chief has been overtly critical of Obama’s record on job creation. And as the president’s favorable ratings with the public have worsened, Democratic allies running for reelection in House races have been edging away from him.
At a time economic recovery remains elusive, policymakers are framing their proposals as prescriptions for a “jobs recovery.” The semantics are telling. As lousy as the economy is, the jobs picture is worse. If Obama and the Democrats can exercise the discipline to capitalize on their traditional allegiance to workers, the dynamic offers them a narrow but long-term opening, shifting the conversation away from a stubbornly under-performing economy to an emphasis on the middle-class priority of a job for everyone who wants one.
Imagine a similarly altered paradigm in football—a timely comparison considering Obama’s speech directly precedes the National Football League season opener between the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers. What if football players were judged not by the number of touchdown passes or rushing yards, but on the merits of the pulling guard, or, the hidden results of a shrewd free safety who discourages a quarterback from throwing a pass? Within the $9 billion pro football industry, some of the money would shift away from the so-called skill players and toward those in the less-glorified positions.
It’s Obama’s ball, it’s a new season. And it’s fourth and long.