In April 1984, the U.S. economy added 363,000 jobs. Unemployment fell to 7.7 percent after a high of 10.8 percent in November 1982. After the most severe recession since World War II, the economy surged, with gross domestic product growing at an astounding 7.4 percent annual rate. In that context, President Reagan was able to ride the healthy economy to a 49-state landslide in November.
Friday's jobs report, coming amid GDP growth of 2.2 percent, demonstrates that President Obama finds himself in a very different situation. The U.S. economy added only 115,000 jobs in April -- a very disappointing number, given that analysts had expected 165,000. And that was the employer survey. The household survey, from which the unemployment rate is calculated, actually suggests a loss of 169,000 jobs. This means that for the unemployment rate to fall to 8.1 percent as it did, 522,000 additional Americans over age 16 had to join the ranks of the nearly 90 million who are neither employed nor looking for work.
According to the new report, civilian workforce participation is now at its lowest point in 31 years. The U.S. economy is receding to the time before the Reagan recovery. The unemployment rate would actually be 11 percent today if the U.S. labor force were the same size as it was when Obama took office. But this did not prevent Obama from touting the small decline in unemployment during his speech yesterday in Northern Virginia.
Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, claimed Friday that the vast majority of the 1-point drop in unemployment since August (from 9.1 to 8.1 percent) has been because of job creation and not labor force dropout. He made this point to defend Obama's record, but in fact this also suggests the employment situation has rapidly and dramatically worsened. After middling job gains last fall, the household survey has turned south for two months running, and the decline in April is five times larger than it was in March.
Either way, the economy is a long way off from the 5.9 percent unemployment rate that Obama promised we'd have by now if only he could pass his stimulus package in 2009. For three years since that $800 billion boondoggle, the Obama recovery has created false hope each winter, only to stall in the spring. Gallup reported earlier this week that Obama's job approval rating is right on the border between those incumbents who have gone on to win and those who have failed. If the economy keeps struggling through the summer, the same way it did the last two years, Obama has to be considered the underdog in this November's election.