Slow-but-steady job growth is good but not good enough for President Obama, whose re-election prospects increasingly depend on his ability to prove costly economic policies are working.
“We've got a big hole that we're digging ourselves out of,” Obama said last week. “You've still got a whole bunch of folks who are out there looking, still struggling.”
For the White House, the slow pace of economic growth has been nearly as frustrating as the relentlessly downbeat attitude of Americans, 66 percent of whom said in a recent Bloomberg News poll they believe the country is on the wrong track.
“It's not an economic indicator, but it's a key political one — when people say we're on the wrong track, it's very indicative of how they feel in their personal circumstances,” said Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford.
Persistent high unemployment is the Obama administration's greatest worry and largest obstacle, as his team prepares for the 2012 re-election campaign. New Labor Department figures last week showed only a modest reduction in unemployment last month, from 9.8 percent to 9.4 percent.
With a certain amount of frustration, Obama frequently touts 12 straight months of private-sector job growth, more positive economic forecasts and claims that his $814 billion stimulus program saved or created 1.3 million jobs.
“We know these numbers can bounce around from month to month,” Obama said. “But the trend is clear.”
Employers last year added 1.1 million jobs — but there are still an estimated 7.2 million fewer jobs in the economy than there were three years ago.
To make a fresh start, Obama brought on William Daley, a Chicago banker and businessman who served as President Clinton's commerce secretary, to be his new chief of staff. He tapped Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling to head the National Economic Council.
Beyond the echoes of Clinton-era economic prosperity, Obama is hoping the duo will help him develop business-friendly policies that spur job creation and reverse the perception that he is anti-business.
“You have to give him credit for valuing experience,” said John Fortier, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Daley in particular is a more senior figure with a different set of skills from a different generation, and I think that is all to the good.”
Still, perceptions that Obama was slow off the mark in realizing the importance of job creation and harbors a distrust of business are problems he largely self-created.
Rather than making jobs and the economy his focus and priority after winning office, Obama pursued a varied agenda that included health care reform as his first concern.
He also made political use of popular resentment for the industry widely blamed for causing the recession, calling out “fat cat” bankers and demanding they change their lending and other practices.
Obama before the holidays brokered a tax bill with Republicans that is expected to cost $858 billion over 10 years. For the president, it was another costly gamble he hopes will pay off in enough job creation to let him keep his for another four years.