President Obama likely wishes that the economy would improve fast enough for him to stay focused on other agenda items. But, five years after the Wall Street banks began collapsing, the U.S. jobs machine remains too weak to advertise its own successes, leaving the job for the second-term president yet again.
When the president arrives Wednesday afternoon at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., to tout the gains made on his watch and promote his economic agenda, it will be the start of his eighth “pivot to jobs,” by Washington Examiner Senior Writer Conn Carroll’s count.
Obama will proceed to the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo., and then to four other stops over coming weeks to highlight his administration’s plans for rebuilding the economy, with a special emphasis on the needs of the middle class. The tour will take place against the backdrop of a U.S. economy that is much the same as it has been since the official end of the recession in June 2009: steadily but tepidly expanding, never attaining the “pick-up” growth that often follows deep downturns.
Over the course of those four years, the economy has struggled to break through the barriers of 2 percent economic growth and 200,000 new jobs created a month. According to a July Wall Street Journal poll, economists now expect growth to slow over the second quarter to a 1.5 percent annual rate, following weak data on retail sales.
And the public doesn’t expect much better. A Pew Research survey released Tuesday indicates that 44 percent of Americans believe that the economic recovery remains a long way off. Of even greater concern to the administration is that number has slipped since the October before Obama’s re-election, when only 36 percent said that it would be a long time before the economy recovers.
A Marist poll also published Tuesday shows that more than half — 54 percent — of the public believes that the country is in a recession right now. The National Bureau of Economic Research establishes the official start and end dates of recessions based on economic output, not the labor market. But the current environment, with 7.6 percent unemployment, 11.8 million looking for work, and 4.3 million unemployed for longer than 27 weeks, feels like a recession even if it is not technically one.
The economy and the outlook for jobs continue to top Americans’ concerns, according to Gallup, overshadowing other items that have been at the top of the Obama administration’s second-term agenda, especially immigration. With his job-approval rating falling to its lowest level since 2011 in July, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Obama does not want widespread dissatisfaction with the economy to go unaddressed.
According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, Obama’s economic tour will focus on a theme that also defined his reelection campaign, namely the “the basic notion that a thriving middle class that feels secure and is expanding has always been the driving force behind the American economy at its best.”
What the president will be trying to fight, Carney said Wednesday, is “a condition where, because of trends globally as well as policy decisions made here in Washington, you were seeing a reinforcement of a winner-take-all approach to the economy, where benefits accrued rapidly and in some cases exponentially to the top 1 percent, while the middle class — almost everybody else saw their situation either stagnate or get worse.”
So far, however, the Obama administration has a long way to go to fulfill its campaign promise to build the economy “from the middle out.” An April Pew Research report found the wealthy enjoying an economic recovery that mostly passed the middle class by: “During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.” Median earnings have fallen an inflation-adjusted 4 percent even after the end of the recession, as shown by Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Unless those trends reverse themselves in the near future, the president’s most recent pivot to jobs probably won’t be his last.