Let’s say that next Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes out with a really handsome non-farm-payrolls report. Something close to 300,000 new jobs and a decline in the unemployment rate by a couple of tenths of a point. How do you suppose the president and his staff would deal with the news?
You might safely expect that the president, himself, would find a way to do a little public bragging. That’s what he did when the April number came out at more than 220,000 new jobs. The president indulged, typically, in a bit of sarcasm, saying, “Sixty-two months ago is when I signed the Affordable Care Act. So, obviously, it hasn't done too bad in terms of employment in this country. I just thought I'd mention that. Since there were a lot of predictions of doom and gloom.”
But the president isn’t always so quick to take ownership of the numbers when they are ugly, as they were last week, when the Commerce Department released its revised figures of first quarter GDP. The number was .7%, which wouldn’t have been anything to shout about if there had been a plus sign in front of it. The number was, however, on the minus side of zero. The economy, that is, had contracted.
The White House has a contingency plan for this sort of thing; it sends someone else out to alibi and obfuscate and when all else fails, blame the Republicans. The first responder in this case was the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, which posted the following on its blog:
Today’s downward revision to GDP growth was entirely accounted for by revisions to inventory investment and net exports, with other changes being small and neutral on balance. The first-quarter slowdown was the result of harsh winter weather, tepid foreign demand, and consumers saving the windfall from lower oil prices. The combination of personal consumption and fixed investment, the most stable components of GDP, has grown 3.4 percent over the past four quarters. This solid long-term economic trend complements the robust pace of job growth and unemployment reduction over the last year. The President is committed to further strengthening these positive trends by opening our exports to new markets with new high-standards free trade agreements that create opportunities for the middle class, expanding investments in infrastructure, and ensuring the sequester does not return in the next fiscal year as outlined in the President’s FY2016 Budget.
Which made everyone feel so very much better.
One negative quarter gets the economy halfway to a recession and you would think that the administration – to include the President, himself – might treat the news as something other than raw material to be fed into the perpetual spin machine.
There are millions of people who believe that the recession never ended and among other bits of discouraging economic news, we learned last week that consumer confidence fell for a seventh consecutive week, to its lowest level in six months.
The White House attitude is, evidently, that those people need to shape up and start seeing things for how they really are. Get the Council of Economic Advisors busy whipping up a few paragraphs of feel good boilerplate and send Josh Earnest out to tell the “folks” that everything is fine, this is just a blip, and our strategy is working, same as it is in Iraq.
Good news on the economy, in the view of President Obama (and, indeed, the Washington political class) is always due to the wise people in government. Bad economic news gets laid off on things that are beyond government’s poor powers to change. Lately, the alibi of choice is the weather.
For now, however, the fact in front of everyone’s face is that the economy contracted last quarter. Put simply, we are losing ground.
If the administration sends designated spinners out to the Sunday talks, we won’t hear any of them say this. And we certainly won’t hear any of them say that the administration has done anything less than a splendid job on the economy. If it just weren’t for the damned old weather and those obstructionist Republicans …
Reassuring just about nobody.
And next Friday, the jobs number comes out. If it is bad, it will be, “Hey, not our fault.” If it is good, it will be “Aren’t we smart?”
In Washington, where the economy is never anything but robust, everyone will shrug. Out in the country, the disillusionment will tip further over into anger and the mood of what the pundits are calling “populism,” will spread and intensify.