Democrats seized on Friday’s middling job figures to press their attack on President Bush with renewed vigor, following weeks of impressive growth statistics that suggested the economy might be turning to his advantage.
Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt characterized as “nothing short of pitiful and pathetic” the report showing the U.S. economy added 1,000 jobs last month. “This is truly a jobless recovery,” the Missouri congressman said.
“President Bush can’t sweep under the rug the fact that more than 8 million people are hunting for work and there just aren’t enough jobs,” said another candidate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
On Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco weighed in with Democrats’ favorite statistic -- the likelihood that Bush will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to suffer a net loss of jobs during his four years in office.
“We had all hoped that the holiday shopping season would encourage retailers to hire more employees,” Pelosi said. “Instead, a mere 1,000 jobs were created nationwide, while manufacturing jobs continued to hemorrhage.”
Friday’s Labor Department figures not only surprised experts and disappointed Wall Street but also demonstrated how the political climate can quickly change.
The weak jobs report, coming as other economic indicators are robust, may mean that rather than boosting Bush or his eventual Democratic foe, the economy could be subject to partisan interpretation this election year.
Bush sought to emphasize the positive parts of Friday’s report. Noting the unemployment rate had dipped to 5.7% -- and ignoring that it fell because people quit looking for work -- the president said, “Manufacturing orders are up dramatically ... productivity is high
“All the signs in our economy ... are very strong,” Bush told small-business owners at the Commerce Department in Washington. “And that’s positive for somebody who might be wondering about whether he or she is going to find a job.”
The weak figures on job growth were particularly surprising given the economy’s sparkling performance over the last few months. The output of goods and services grew an eye-popping 8.2% during the third quarter of 2003. The housing and construction industries boomed. Interest rates stayed low, and the Dow Jones industrial average finished the year up 25%.
All that upbeat news had yielded positive dividends for the president.
A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released this week found optimism about the economy at its highest since Bush took office in 2001 amid a recession. Two in three people surveyed said the economy was improving, compared with one in three a year ago. The percentage of Americans worried about losing their job in the next year, 21%, was the lowest since Bush took office.
That last finding may be the most politically significant, because it most directly measures faith in the economy and the prospect of good times ahead.
“It’s a mistake to think that people vote because other people are unemployed,” said Allan Meltzer, a political economy professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “They vote because they worry they’re going to be unemployed.”
For that reason, Friday’s jobs report caused a Republican political advisor to say the White House should rethink some of its recent election-year ideas.
“It’s fine to talk about amnesty and going to the moon,” said the advisor, referring to the president’s immigration reform plan and space exploration proposal. “But what’s most important is to stay focused on this planet and domestic issues at hand.”
Part of the critical remarks from the Democrats is the ritual of finding something bad to say whenever the other party is in power -- just as Republicans sought four years ago to look for stains on the Clinton administration’s economic record.
Still, polling and interviews have found a real sense of economic anxiety in parts of the country that have been hard-hit by the contraction of the manufacturing industry, which accounts for most of the roughly 2.3 million jobs lost under Bush. Politically crucial states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa are among those hurting the most.
“Hopeful economic statistics [don’t] pay the mortgage, the college tuition, prescription drug costs and all the other burdens that people face before they put a dime away in savings,” said David Axelrod, a strategist for Edwards. “The truth is, over the long term middle-class people have been struggling, and they continue to struggle.”
Edwards pressed that case in a new radio advertisement that began airing Friday in Iowa, which kicks off the presidential balloting in nine days. “In America today, Wall Street’s on the rebound,” said the ad. “But on main streets across Iowa, there’s another America, where farms and businesses are closing. Jobs are leaving. Our young people are moving away.”
The political danger -- for both sides -- is overstating circumstances and losing credibility.
“People won’t believe us if we say the sky is falling and they look outside and see it’s still there,” said Bruce Reed, a former Clinton White House aide who helps direct the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist policy group. “On the other hand, they won’t believe Bush if he says ‘mission accomplished’ and pretends their problems are solved when people know they’re not.”
“I think the economic picture for the average family is pretty mixed,” Reed said. “Our economic case has to be that the middle class will be a lot better under our plan for America than under the Republicans.”
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.