The most recent reports on unemployment dealt a serious blow to at least one man's sense of job security: President Obama.
The president, harshly rebuked in the midterm elections by voters who thought he hadn't done enough to create jobs and revive the economy, is hanging his hopes for a second term on the expectation that the great recession would bottom out and that more Americans would soon be returning to work. Instead, the number of those out of work is increasing, and the unemployment rate is now up to 9.8 percent.
Making matters worse was the prediction by Obama's own Federal Reserve Board chairman, Ben Bernanke, that the improvements the administration expected to start seeing in 2011, on the eve of Obama's re-election bid, wouldn't materialize on time.
“At the rate we're going,” Bernanke said, “it could be four, five years before we are back to a more normal unemployment rate. The unemployment rate is just not going down.”
That new reality tosses a dose of cold water on the administration's struggle to show that Obama's economic policies are working.
“It's total disaster,” Republican strategist John Brabender said. “Most people understand there are economic cycles, and whether it's Republicans or Democrats, there is only so much you can do in office in a short period of time.” But “this country is not used to extended economic malaise.”
Obama's inability to show meaningful improvement in the economy and a perception that he wasn't spending enough time on the issue were key factors in his party's electoral losses last month. And those defeats go a long way in explaining why the president cut a deal on tax cuts and jobless benefits with congressional Republicans that ignited a revolt in his own party, particularly among House Democrats, but demonstrated his commitment to improving the economy.
Still, if unemployment remains around 9 percent for another year or longer, Obama has bigger political problems than the short-term disappointment of his party's liberal wing.
“Unemployment numbers aren't the economy, but they are the most visible indicator and thing most Americans are aware of,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York. “It's certainly salient if you're not working.”
Part of the problem is that there is no magic bullet for job creation. Both parties have been flummoxed by this economy, trying to patch it up with tax breaks, stimulus funds and bailouts.
But Obama came to office promising solutions, vowing that his policies would succeed where Republicans had failed, and voters now view him as a man without a plan.
“Everyone now believes unemployment will be about 8.5 percent or so during the next election, which is certainly tough for Obama,” said Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist.
Mike Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, said Obama's default position likely will be managing expectations and persuading Americans to accept 9 percent unemployment as “the new normal.”
“Then if you get down to 8 percent, you've done a good job,” Franc said. “But my guess is that the combination of a high unemployment number and the fact that he had a chance to remedy the economy and nothing worked ends up being a serious problem.”