The main significance of Friday’s unemployment report is what it means for the Americans hiding behind the numbers.
Also important, however, is what it says about the administration of President Barack Obama.
First, the people. From August to September, 456,000 fewer people were unemployed. That’s 456,000 people who have hope. These are people who can imagine a future that includes a car or a home or even a savings account, people who have an incentive to work hard because their efforts may be rewarded.
For them, it is a huge drop in the stress that comes from not knowing what the future holds.
The political question asked by Republicans is, “Are we better off than four years ago?”
It’s an odd question in this election, because four years ago America’s economy was collapsing. Four years ago, George W. Bush was president and we were in a recession. The credit markets were frozen, banks were failing at historic rates, foreclosures were at record levels, gross domestic product was falling and unemployment was rising fast.
Everyone understood that the economy would get worse; the only question was by how much. As it was, unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009.
The question is flawed, but the answer is that we are better off than when Obama took office.
In the first full month of Obama’s tenure (he took office Jan. 20, 2009), 12.5 million people — 8.2 percent — were unemployed, and the number was growing fast. Between January and February of 2009, the number of unemployed increased by 851,000. In September, 11.7 million people — 7.8 percent — were unemployed, and the number is falling.
The stock market has risen by about 78 percent since Obama took office. Household wealth, plummeting before Obama took office, is rising.
Obama is not solely responsible for the economic gains since he took office, any more than Bush is solely responsible for the recession.
Obama’s challenger, Mitt Romney, argues he could have turned the economy around more quickly. Given that he opposed most stimulus measures and would not have injected the capital necessary to save the auto industry, it seems unlikely. Maybe Romney’s prescription would eventually have led to a stronger economy, but almost certainly key indicators like unemployment would be worse now.
Politics aside, Americans can celebrate. Too many people continue to suffer, but we are seeing a long-awaited economic upswing.