By Russell Berman - 02/07/12 10:15 AM EST
Republicans are facing a tricky task as they respond to signs of economic improvement while making the case that President Obama’s policies have failed.
The GOP’s argument in the coming election centers on broad voter disapproval of Obama’s handling of the economy, but Democrats are waiting to pounce on statements that suggest Republicans are rooting against a full-fledged economic recovery.
The rosy report posed a test for a GOP political pitch that had been running on autopilot, and there are few signs that Republicans plan to significantly alter their message in the face of economic improvement.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) blatantly ignored an opportunity, offered by a reporter on Friday, for the year-old GOP House majority to take credit for jobs created under its watch.
“What I’m suggesting to you today is that we can do better,” Boehner said.
“The American people are still asking a question: Where are the jobs? And while the unemployment rate is down slightly and a few more Americans are at work, we still have millions of Americans that are looking for work.”
While Democrats highlight the economy’s positive trend, Republicans are focusing on a bottom-line snapshot in which an unemployment rate above 8 percent is nothing to crow about.
“It’s important to look at the overall picture and how middle-class families in the heart of these districts are doing,” said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “I think a lot of people look at the employment numbers and shake their heads, because these numbers are still way too high.”
Sensing a political opening, Democrats say the GOP is scrambling. “After they spent two years rooting for economic failure, House Republicans can’t decide how to handle themselves with good news on the economy,” a Democratic aide said. “They can’t fall back to talking about what they’ve done to create jobs, because they haven’t done anything.”
The chief substantive achievement for the House Republican majority in 2011 was a reduction in government spending. While some Republicans have tried to link spending cuts to job creation, aides and strategists say it is unlikely that the GOP will argue heading into November that economic improvement resulted from that budget-tightening.
Instead, Republicans plan to keep talking about Obama policies, like the economic stimulus, the healthcare law and business regulations, that were enacted over GOP opposition.
“At this point, the president has been in campaign mode since Labor Day. As a result, all we can talk about are policies he put in place before then, mostly before we won the majority,” a House GOP leadership aide said.
The aide said the Republican message could change if the president “changes course” and works with the GOP to enact bipartisan agreements on tax reform, energy policy or other areas of common ground. “That’s certainly something we could be proud of and would talk about,” the aide said.
GOP leaders are not adopting the argument floated by one of their conservative freshman members, Rep. Allen West (Fla.), who questioned employment data released by Obama’s Labor Department as “very suspicious.”
In a Facebook post Friday, West cited figures showing that black employment has improved at a rate three times faster than the national average since September. “Is this dramatic supposed decrease in black unemployment a result of job creation or is someone playing around with the census numbers??” West wrote. “Americans need truth, not these number games.”
Asked to substantiate West’s claims, a spokeswoman for the congressman passed along a memo from the Republican staff director of the Joint Economic Committee, Robert O’Quinn, who wrote that “unusual bounces” in the January jobs report are due to the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics used updated population data from the 2010 Census for the first time in compiling the report.
“Comparisons between household survey data in December 2011 and January 2012 are ‘apples-to-oranges,’ not ‘apples-to-apples,’ ” O’Quinn wrote.
While senior Republicans have not questioned the Labor Department data, they have pointed to declines in the workforce participation rate as at least a partial cause of the drop in the unemployment rate, arguing that many Americans have simply given up hope and stopped looking for work. The official unemployment rate takes into account only Americans who are actively seeking jobs.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), appearing at a “Young Guns” forum in Washington on Monday, was asked about claims that the Census had distorted the jobs data. “Any time you add a quarter of a million jobs in a month, that’s a good thing,” Cantor said. “As far as new participants in the market and how that was being interpreted, I don’t know enough to tell you yes or no.”
He then quickly pivoted to the GOP message that although Friday’s report was welcome news, past economic recoveries have been much stronger. “We ought to embrace it, but we ought to always set the bar higher and say we can do better. And we can do better,” Cantor said.