Poorer than expected unemployment numbers released yesterday pricked the euphoria of Democrats as they headed home after their three-day convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and underscored why the main message of President Barack Obama’s not quite soaring acceptance speech on Thursday night had been ‘give me more time’.
With two months remaining in the race, both candidates headed without delay to the swing states of Iowa and New Hampshire, with new polls showing them almost precisely tied. The jobs data gave an instant opening to Mitt Romney to argue his case that President Obama’s economic policies have failed and he should be shown the door.
The Democrat gathering, which saw highest marks awarded to speakers Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama, was widely regarded as largely successful, especially when set beside the far less fizzy Republican confab held in Tampa the week before. It will be several days, however, before we know if it leads to a commensurate polling boost.
How long a shadow has been cast by the unemployment data is also hard to judge. It is not the drip of monthly figures that voters worry about but their personal situations. But helpful yesterday’s data certainly was not. The government said 96,000 new jobs were created in August, less than the 125,000 economists had been expecting. And while the jobless rate fell to 8.1 per cent from 8.3 per cent that was only because of people giving up on seeking work.
“If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover,” Mr Romney said in a statement. “After 43 straight months of unemployment above 8%, it is clear that President Obama just hasn’t lived up to his promises and his policies haven’t worked.” The White House quickly countered with a different interpretation.
“While there is more work that remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the US economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” suggested Alan Krueger, the chairman of Mr Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
As Mr Obama took the stage to make his case for re-election, he already knew the jobs data and that it would be an inconvenient punctuation point to the Charlotte celebration. Some saw in that an explanation for why his acceptance speech seemed in oratory and substance more workmanlike than wow - or more prose than poetry. In it he set a series of benchmarks for a second term, including creating 1 million new manufacturing jobs by 2016.
He also conceded that his policies for curing the country’s economic malaise had yet to take full effect. “I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have,” he declared. “You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”
Even within the headline jobs numbers was the additionally discouraging news that the Labour Department had revised downwards by 41,000 the number of posts created in June and July. “The indisputable message of today's job report: We're not creating jobs fast enough, and we’re certainly not better off than we were four years ago,” Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus pronounced. On the brighter side for Democrat, the numbers are likely to prod the Federal Reserve into take new round of quantitative easing to boost the recovery.
Prior to Obama’s speech, convention organizers had wheeled out a slate of young celebrities, perhaps hoping to rub salt into the wound of Clint Eastwood’s befuddling skit involving an empty chair in Tampa. Hollywood stars Eva Longoria, Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington spoke from the rostrum. Musical interludes came courtesy of The Foo Fighters and Mary J Blige. A hush fell over the Time Warner arena when Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who suffered a critical brain injury in an assassination attempt in Tucson early last year walked haltingly onto the stage to lead delegates in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Political royalty was meanwhile represented by Caroline Kennedy, the only living child of JFK, who said that the President “has the quality my father most admired in public life: courage.” The death of her uncle, Teddy, this election cycle has left Democrats without a member of the Camelot dynasty in elected office for the first time in decades.
That could be about to change, however. Late on Thursday, party genealogists were cheered by news that Joseph Kennedy III, the 31-year-old grandson of JFK’s brother, Robert F Kennedy, had been selected as a Democratic candidate for Congress. He will contest a seat in Massachusetts being vacated by Barney Frank. Despite his surname, the newly-minted candidate said he wants to earn votes on his own merits. “I got into this race because I believe this country was built on a simple promise: that each of us deserves a fair shot.”