An exasperated Robert Gibbs said last summer: “Let’s just be honest, the economy lost more jobs than it had in the last three recessions combined. It’s hard to message that.”
The verdict voters returned last week was that the White House never provided a good answer to the question of how to handle the unemployment rate.
The bad news is that they are not slam-dunk numbers, but rather a marked improvement that will require the P.T. Barnum-like salesmanship that has so far eluded Obama and his aides.
Economists who study the labor market said this week that they expect unemployment in 2012 to average 8.5 percent, down more than a point from the 9.6 jobless rate of today.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said every forecast she has studied predicts rapid job growth in 2012, even though the national number will still be a far cry from full employment.
“It’s still going to be so high in 2012, but people are going to be feeling better,” Shierholz said.
Mark Zandi, the White House’s favorite economist to quote because of his advisory role with Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign, sees the same picture.
Zandi said Obama’s stimulus plan has achieved its goal. The plan, Zandi said, prevented another Great Depression while giving the public sector time to kick in and start hiring, which will be in full effect when Obama is running for reelection.
“The trend is going to be in strong favor of incumbents in 2012,” said Shierholz.
That’s something that could benefit Obama and the new Republican House majority, with the latter likely claiming credit for improvement while continuing to ask Obama: “Where are the jobs?”
If Obama wants the economic theme of 2012 to be a victory lap for his stewardship of a rapidly recovering economy, he will have to be more nimble and persuasive than he has been so far.
The White House’s failure to formulate a consistent, positive economic message is something that has frustrated Democrats, who believe a better communications strategy from the White House could have saved the party some of the House and Senate seats it lost last week.
The president has acknowledged shortcomings. In multiple interviews since the midterms, he has said he did not do a good job of explaining to voters his policy decisions on the economy.
On the first Friday of every month since he took office, Obama has tried to provide a message. He’s stood in front of news cameras, trying to put the best face possible on the jobless reports. When there was growth, Obama described it as encouraging but always said there is more work to do.
To keep his job, Obama is going to have to find a more uplifting message than that.
While an improvement, 8.5 percent is still higher than the peak numbers of the last two recessions.
Shierholz noted that the high-water mark for the last two recessions was 7.5 percent in 1992 and 6 percent in 2003.
When Obama entered office, unemployment stood at 7.7 percent. The president will be hoping voters have short memories when it comes to that figure. He’d also benefit if voters forget that administration officials predicted that 8 percent was as high as the unemployment rate would go.
The bottom line for Obama and his team is that they will have better numbers to work with in 2012 than they did in 2010. But if Obama wants another four years, he has to convince voters that the economy has turned around.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.