If you were playing one of those buzzword-bingo drinking games during the Democratic convention last week, I sure hope you didn’t have the phrase “created 4.5 million jobs” on your card. Those words got repeated so often, by so many speakers, that you would have had to be locked up in maximum-security rehab halfway through the convention.
Unfortunately, as we learned back when Richard Nixon used to say, “I am not a crook” and Bill Clinton insisted, “I did not have sex with that woman,” repeating stuff over and over does not make it come true. For the Obama administration to brag of creating 4.5 million jobs is the same thing as the Bush administration boasting that it cut U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 140,000: It all depends on when you start counting.
Any way you look at it, there are fewer Americans at work today than when Barack Obama took office. The unemployment rate at the end of the Bush administration was 7.3 percent. Today it’s 8.1 percent.
That figure represents an improvement only against Obama’s own track record — unemployment hit a high of 10 percent in the seventh month of his administration and was 9 percent or higher for two years of his presidency.
That grim picture gets much worse when you start looking at other measures of joblessness. What the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the unemployment rate measures only people who are actively looking for work but can’t find it. People who give up their search no longer count as unemployed.
That can, and does, disguise the number of people who are out of work. When the bureau announced last week that the unemployment rate had dropped from 8.3 to 8.1 percent, reading the fine print showed that the number of Americans who are actually employed dropped by 119,000. The supposed improvement in the unemployment rate was an illusion produced by 338,000 people abandoning their efforts to get jobs.
They’ve got plenty of company: More than four million people have dropped out of the labor market since Obama became president. They’ve retired, gone back to school, gone on medical disability, or are being supported by somebody else. To be sure, some of those people would have left the market even if the economy was roaring ahead at full steam — particularly the first wave of Baby Boomers, born in 1946, who hit retirement age last year.
But even some of those retirees would probably have stayed at work if their salaries and benefits weren’t in abrupt decline. A study released last year by former Census Bureau officials Gordon W. Green Jr. and John F. Coder showed that from 2009 to mid-2011, median household income fell 6.7 percent.
The bottom line is that the economy is squeezing out more and more workers. What economists call the labor-force participation rate — the percentage of working-age Americans who have jobs or are looking for them — is now down to 65.3 percent, the lowest level since 1981, the tail end of the recession that cost Jimmy Carter his presidency.
No matter how you measure it, unemployment is not entirely President Obama’s fault. George W. Bush was in the White House when the recession began, and the jobless rate rose sharply during his final few months in office.
But what can be said, with perfect clarity, is that Obama doesn’t know how to fix it. Back in 2009, he warned that unless Congress passed his $800 billion stimulus package, the United States would be wracked with 8 percent employment. Obama got his money, but nearly three years later, we’re still trying to get unemployment down to 8 percent. And all the buzzwords in the world won’t cover that up.