By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
It’s the question reverberating through Charlotte this week, from the tops of the tall skyscrapers to the pavement on the crowded city streets, chock full of Democrats in town for the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
So, are we?
As with everything in politics, the answer depends on who’s talking. Republicans seeking to take President Barack Obama out of the White House say Americans are still struggling. Democrats busily defending their standard-bearer insist the economy is improving, and time will bear that out.
Earlier this week, at their counter-messaging center in the NASCAR Hall of Fame just steps from the Democrats’ convention, Republicans used top surrogates to continue their economy-first communications strategy.
“Families’ wallets are thinner,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told reporters Wednesday. “Gas prices have doubled. We are not better off than we were four years ago.”
Democrats, on the other hand, say Obama’s policies pulled the national economy out of a ditch when the president took office in 2009.
In a wildly entertaining – not to mention long-winded – speech to delegates Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton backed Obama’s policies and urged patience.
“A lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated about this economy. If you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again, and in a lot of places, housing prices have even begun to pick up,” Clinton said.
“But too many people do not feel it yet … No president, no president — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
Everyone has their take, even bombastic rapper Nikki Minaj. In a recently released Li’l Wayne mixtape, Minaj came out for Mitt Romney – sort of. “I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney / You lazy (expletive deleted) is (expletive deleted) up the economy.”
While music pundits argued that Minaj, who in the same track laced lyrics about kicking it with zombies, didn’t actually endorse Romney, the lyrics reveal a larger dynamic: Everyone agrees the economy isn’t where it needs to be.
So, then, where is it ?
Unfortunately for the Republican narrative, the economy is creating jobs. Equally unfortunate for Democrats, it’s not creating enough new jobs to assuage Americans’ unease.
Clinton and keynote speaker Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, noted that Obama’s economy created 4.5 million jobs in the president’s first term. It’s a fancy statistic, but only when taken fully out of context.
CNN reported Wednesday that while the figure is technically correct, it’s misleading to use only that metric. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, total non-farm private-sector employment stood at 111 million jobs when Obama took office in January 2009. The same figure held at 111.3 million jobs last month.
That’s a net gain of about 300,000 private-sector jobs.
Under Obama, total employment is down from 133.6 million – that’s including government jobs – in January 2009, to 133.2 million in July 2012.
That’s a net loss of 400,000 total jobs, though conservative types might applaud Obama for government jobs shed through his tenure.
Though the BLS private sector-numbers are encouraging, even more context shows the added jobs aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. An Aug. 31 report from the National Employment Law Project explains new jobs tend to be lower-paying for less-skilled workers. According to the group, low-wage jobs accounted for 21 percent of recession jobs lost, but they make up 58 percent of new jobs.
Other metrics dovetail with the NELP data.
A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report revealed that more than 45.8 million Americans need food stamps – federal aid for food purchases – to survive each month. That’s 15 percent of the national population, or one in seven Americans. Total federal food stamp spending hit $78 billion last year, up from $20 billion in 200.
And while the private sector might be adding jobs at a somewhat decent clip, it’s not enriching Americans. An August report by Sentier Research said that, from June 2009 until June 2012, inflation adjusted median household income dropped by 4.8 percent.
Interestingly, the Washington Post notes Obama’s recovery has been rougher on median income than the recession itself. “Incomes have dropped more since the beginning of the recovery than they did during the recession itself, when they declined 2.6 percent,” the publication noted Aug. 23.
Even the 8.3 percent jobless figure can be tricky to interpret. While it’s an improvement on the October 2010 rate of 10.1 percent, the drop isn’t solely attributable to new job creation. Instead, the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C-based conservative think tank, offers that the rate reduction actually stems from people simply leaving the workforce.
“The drop in unemployment since 2009 is almost entirely due to the fact that those not looking for work do not count as unemployed,” Heritage analyst James Shirk wrote Aug. 30.
Democrats have put their best foot forward this week, urging Americans to exercise patience while the economy recovers.
Ed Jasewicz, a delegate from upstate New York, says Obama will eventually resuscitate the national economy.
“He was elected under hard times,” Jasewciz said of the president earlier this week. “There was a lot he had to address.”
“You can’t do all that overnight,” Jazewciz said. “You can’t do it in four years. It took Bill Clinton eight years to get us a positive balance. You give him (Obama) four more years and he’ll be doing a great job.”
Despite their best efforts, Democrats can’t but occasionally slip and acknowledge that Americans aren’t better off than when Obama took office.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, on CBS Sunday, said the country isn’t better off than four years ago, though he quickly added that’s “not the question of this election.”
Less than a day later, O’Malley pivoted sharply. “We are clearly better off as a country because now we’re creating jobs rather than losing them,” the governor told CNN, presumably after an uncomfortable phone call from Obama’s campaign team.
Contact Dustin Hurst at [email protected]