For reasons that Meagan McArdle points out, the conservative charge that the Bureau of Labor Statistics cooked the recent unemployment numbers is very improbable. You'd have to believe that the BLS was willing to take an enormous risk at a date that is probably too late to do a lot of good. Color me skeptical on both counts.
That the unemployment rate measured by the Household Survey fell below 8% surely provides the Obama campaign with a talking point. Even before scrutinizing the fine print, this is a pretty weak brag. I have heard at least three Obama spokespersons say that the unemployment rate is the lowest since the President took office. While that sounds okay, what it means is that three years after the great recession officially ended, we have just now got back to where we started. That alone indicates a very dismal recovery.
The fine print looks a lot worse. The household survey is notoriously volatile. A drop from 8.1 to 7.8% is statistically insignificant. The survey also indicates that the change was mostly due to people taking part time jobs. The Labor Department revised upwards the number of jobs added July through September to 146,000 per month. September's numbers may be revised upwards as well, but last month's numbers are likely to be below the average for this year. This year is below the monthly average for last year (153,000).
To appreciate what is happening in the jobs market you have to compare the overall supply of jobs with the demand. James Pethokoukis gives us the charts
If you want to blame Dubya, fine. Above is what you can blame him for. This chart measures the percentage of the labor force (persons available to take jobs) that is actually working. It rises steadily from Reagan to Bush 43 and steadily declines thereafter. The worst thing you can say about Obama's record is that he has utterly failed to stop the slide. That is also the best thing you can say about it. We're not back where we started when Obama took office; we're back where we started when Reagan took office!
It gets better. Here is a chart laying out civilian labor force participation against population growth.
This shows you what the business cycle used to look like: sharp downturns followed by robust recoveries. Lines zigzagging upward indicate job growth robust enough to supply jobs not just to people who lost them in the last recession but also to new workers entering the workforce. The Reagan-Bush41 recovery and the Clinton recovery look very healthy. The Bush43 recovery, by contrast, looks anemic; however, it was still a recovery.
You can hardly blame Obama for complaining about the cards he was dealt. The great recession was great because it was unprecedented. The drop in labor-force participation was dropped us back to levels not seen since the early 80's recession. What is almost as striking, however, is what happened next. The line doesn't resume its rise but flattens out. There is nothing like that anywhere else on the chart. The great American jobs engine is down in a hole and stuck in neutral.
That is Obama's jobs record. Maybe we are on course for a great surge in economic growth. There is no sign of that so far. One might wonder what Obama plans to do about all of this if he is reelected. If he has a clue, he has kept it a secret.