Among the dismal economic statistics that Mitt Romney has had at his disposal during his presidential run, one was particularly powerful: unemployment above 8 percent for all but the first 11 days of President Obama’s term.
Romney has used the number at almost every campaign stop for months, and even mentioned it in his closing remarks during Wednesday evening’s debate. “We've had 43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent,” he said.
That particular talking point was shattered two days later when the unemployment rate ticked down three-tenths of a percentage point to 7.8 percent—exactly the same as it was when Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009. It was the second Republican talking point to fall, after last week’s news that more jobs have now been created than lost since Obama was sworn in.
“From a political standpoint, you don’t have to be a political genius to know that this is probably good news for Obama,” Republican consultant Rich Galen conceded of the latest jobs report. Nonetheless, Galen was also quick to point out the glaring caveats. “If I were the Romney guys, I would go back and say, 'Well, after four years we’re back to where we started from,' ” he said. “This is still the weakest recovery in the history of recoveries.”
Romney had already concluded before Friday that the economy alone would not propel him to the White House; in one reflection of his broadened approach, he’s giving a foreign-policy speech on Monday at Virginia Military Institute. Yet with Romney’s main selling point his experience in the business world, his campaign can’t ignore the economy. And plenty of other bleak data points reinforce his point: There are still 12 million people out of work, job growth continues to be sluggish, and if the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted those who have dropped out of the workforce, the unemployment rate would be closer to 11 percent.
The 8 percent number has been a political football ever since Obama advisers projected in a pre-inaugural report that a $775 billion stimulus package would keep unemployment below 8 percent. A slightly larger stimulus did pass, but unemployment reached a high of 10 percent in October 2009. The true depth of the recession was not known until last year, when the Commerce Department said the economy had contracted 5.1 percent between late 2007 and the second quarter of 2009.
Romney aides, aware that the latest jobs figures will require a rhetorical adjustment, argue that Americans understand 7.8 percent unemployment is still too high and does not reflect a true recovery.
“Those 43-plus months with the unemployment rate above 8 percent don’t just disappear. That’s a big part of President Obama’s record,” senior adviser Kevin Madden wrote in an e-mail when asked how Romney would handle the latest jobs numbers on the campaign trail. “With the economy still sluggish, we will continue to ask voters if they can really afford another four years like the last four years. We have 23 million Americans still struggling to find work and for them, our economy isn’t living up to its potential.”
The campaign sent out similar talking points in an email to its surrogates titled “Americans are still waiting for a real recovery.” In the e-mail, Romney aide Kristen Sabella cited the 11 percent figure as the “real unemployment rate” that includes workforce dropouts. Romney himself used it Friday at a rally in Virginia’s coal country and said the reason the jobless rate has declined is “primarily due to the fact that more and more people have just stopped looking for work.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the civilian labor force has actually grown since the beginning of the year, while the unemployment rate has, for the most part, slowly declined. Although the percentage of those employed has fallen in previous months due to more people dropping out of the workforce, analysts report that the new rate of 7.8 percent is due to an increase in the number of people who were able to find jobs in September. A Romney aide later clarified that he had been referring to the overall share of the population that has entered the job market.
Galen and other party strategists acknowledged that the jobs report is a morsel of good news for the Obama campaign after the president’s weak debate performance earlier this week, but they said the bigger economic picture is hardly anything for the administration to brag about.
“I’m sure that the Obama campaign will suggest this is progress, but that has to be put in the context of what you’re actually doing from a policy standpoint,” said GOP consultant Jim Dyke. “It appears as if their current economic policy is hoping that the data out of the Labor Department is better than the month before, and I don’t think that’s going to go over well with voters -- especially ones who are still hurting and looking for work.”
The strategists also said voters are not as fixated on a national number as they are concerned about their own economic livelihoods and how they feel about the direction of the country. On that count, Romney still has a compelling argument to make in the next month. “Numbers and percentages get lost on people. It’s how they’re feeling out there and do they know people that are still looking for jobs,” said veteran GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.
Romney made the point personal at his campaign event on Friday morning in Abingdon, Va. “I know right now you’re thinking about one job: your job,” he said. “I’m thinking of your job as well.”