Jobs Report: Challenge Congress To Act, Obama To Fight

Isaiah J. Poole

Updated 8:47 a.m. Today’s unemployment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics will be closely watched for its political impact on the presidential race. But it is not the numbers that will be most consequential. What will determine whether President Obama will keep his job in November is whether he steps up his fight for our jobs and whether we as progressives step up our pressure on Congress, particularly the Republicans who have blocked virtually every major effort to revive the Main Street economy.

From a political standpoint for the Obama administration as well as for job seekers, the news is bad. The economy produced a total of only 80,000 jobs in June, with 84,000 private sector jobs offset by an additional 4,000 jobs lost in the public sector. Middle-class level jobs in construction and manufacturing showed particularly weak growth. But also, the economy lost more than 5,000 retail jobs.

Unemployment among African Americans has creeped up above 14 percent, compared to 7.4 percent among whites; among African-American youth, the official rate is now almost 40 percent. Among Latinos, the unemployment rate is 11 percent; it was 10.3 percent in March and April.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his surrogates will use today’s report to repeat their claims that President Obama’s economic agenda has failed. It will be up to Obama to make clear the plain truth that what America has experienced for the past three years has been a diluted and polluted version of the promises Obama made in his campaign and early months in office.

As former White House Council of Economic Advisers chairman Laura Tyson wrote earlier this week, “Congress left at least one million jobs on the negotiating table” just in the past year alone, thanks to congressional Republicans who are “holding unemployed workers hostage to the outcome of November’s election.”

That is almost enough jobs to close the jobs deficit we’ve been calculating since January, based on the number of jobs the economy would have to create on average each month—about 400,000—to bring the unemployment rate down to 5 percent by the end of 2014. From January to May, the economy created a net 832,000 jobs; to be on pace to meet the 5-percent-in-2014 goal, the economy should have created 2 million jobs.

As we’ve repeated time and again, the corruption of the Obama agenda by the corporatists and anti-government ideologues in both political parties began when the 2009 Recovery Act emerged as a $787 billion program, more than half of which was tax cuts, instead of the more than $1 trillion in additional spending that was needed to begin adequately repairing the damage of the 2008 financial crash.

Since then, Republicans have assaulted the economy at every opportunity, forcing an austerity agenda of budget-cutting at the very time that the federal government should have been stepping up its spending in key areas, both to bring our infrastructure up to 21st-century needs and to prevent layoffs of teachers, first responders and other essential public workers by cash-strapped state and local governments. From June 2009 to May 2012, 605,000 state and local public sector jobs were cut. If public sector jobs had instead grown at the same pace as the three previous economic recoveries, there would be an extra 1.2 million jobs, and that level of additional employment would have supported the creation of an additional 500,000 jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

When the White House and Democrats in Congress tried several times to pass elements of the American Jobs Act, $450 billion worth of job-creation initiatives, Republicans in the House voted as a solid bloc against the efforts, and Senate Republicans filibustered the legislation. The 2 percentage-point reduction in worker payroll taxes was the only major component that survived. Among the opponents is Romney, who has argued that cutting government spending at all levels is necessary to “help the American people” even though, as Tyson said, the teachers, firemen, and police who are being laid off “are American people who help other American people.”

Late last month, Congress pat itself on the back for passing a two-year surface transportation funding bill that is at best a status-quo stop-gap, not the kind of bold, game-changing initiative that would give the nation the kind of transportation network that could sustain the economic growth we need. The obstacle in the way was once again House Republicans, who refused to support the longer-term funding commitment needed by state and local transportation planners without numerous “poison pills,” including provisions that would have authorized construction of the Keystone XL pipeline without robust environmental review and would have ended federal regulation of hazardous coal waste disposal from power plants.

If it were not for congressional Republicans’ repeated obstruction or dilution of virtually every significant job-creation proposal sent to Congress since 2009, unemployment today would likely be under 7 percent instead of stubbornly persisting at around 8 percent.

But while it is important for President Obama to point fingers at the real villains of this economic travesty and that Romney sides with those villains, that is not enough. As Richard Eskow eloquently writes on our site this morning, “One of the President’s greatest failures over the last three and a half years is that he chose to think like a legislator, not a leader. And one of liberalism’s greatest failures was allowing so many people to identify with a leader, not with the principles and values that should be a movement’s guiding star.”

In Ohio on Thursday, President Obama correctly noted that this year’s presidential election will determine the course of the economy for the next decade. It is not too late for Obama to give the nation a vision based on principles such as those in the “economic manifesto” of economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, declaring that conservative austerity policies will fail in the U.S. just as they are failing miserably in Europe and that part of “betting on America,” to use his campaign’s latest catchphrase, is to seize today’s unique opportunity to double down instead of pulling back on our investment in America and its people.

But let’s not wait for Obama to lead. We have to push. Start by confronting members of Congress this weekend, before they return to Washington for more right-wing political grandstanding such as “repealing Obamacare,” as well as candidates running for Congress. Ask them whether they will take steps to put people to work on the work that needs to be done, or will they push instead for policies designed to enrich the already rich, while imposing austerity on everyone else. It will be up to us to make it clear to every politician, from Obama down to the freshman House candidate, that political reward only lies in support of an authentic middle-class jobs agenda.

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