The Labor Department's monthly job reports aren't just the dry, abstract snapshots on employment trends they used to be. In the heat of a quickening presidential campaign, they've become the crucial stuff of flash-point politics.
Never mind, for example, that the latest job growth showed the economy added another 80,000 jobs last month, continuing a job-growth trend that has been positive every month under President Obama for over two years. Or that Obama's policies are successfully enduring the steep climb out of the deep hole of the Great Recession that he inherited. Mitt Romney can be expected to scorn steady job growth as inadequate, and to claim, as he did Friday, that he could do better. With unemployment levels hovering at 8.2 percent, his supporters, and some independent voters, will be inclined to buy his debatable claim.
In fact, larger events outside Washington's control are more central to the economic tepidness of the past several months. Slowing economies in China and emerging markets, and the broadening recession and sovereign debt crises in Europe's 17-country euro zone are the chief factors.
The euro-zone countries, in particular, and the 27-member European Union in general, form America's largest trading and investment bloc. When EU demand for American exports weakens, as it has this year, the consequences in American manufacturing and service industries are inescapable. Europe's slowdown -- nearly half of the euro-zone countries are in official recession -- has also weakened the euro against the dollar, further eroding American businesses' edge and dampening stock markets.
Republicans' lockstep opposition the past several years to Obama's attempts to strengthen the nation's economy has deliberately shot the economy in the foot, as well. Obama has proposed corporate tax breaks for hiring and investments, as well as stimulative infrastructure investments. But as much as Republican leaders talk about how they would juice a slow economy, they've acted to keep the economy weak as a means of defeating Obama. They've rejected bills built around their own customary prescriptions, and they egregiously manufactured a long-running debt-ceiling controversy last year that further harmed the economy.
But while the U.S. economy may be slower than it was earlier this year, when job gains ranged upwards of 200,000 a month, it continues to be resilient. Among the encouraging indices in Friday's report were slight upticks in the average hourly earnings and slightly longer average workweeks for American workers. Those marginal gains suggest employers are seeking more intensive production from existing workers to meet demand, rather than hiring. And though corporate profits in the first quarter of the year declined for the first time since 2008, all of the drop occurred in weakening foreign markets, and not in the U.S.
President Obama remains clear-eyed about the priority of economic growth and the long-term trends that challenge Americans' economic well-being and employers' reluctance to hire. As he told crowds in Ohio Thursday, he has pushed more than worker training, education, tax incentives, reversing off-shoring of jobs, and infrastructure improvements. Over Republican opposition, he also rammed through emergency loans to revive America's auto industry. That successful effort to keep vital U.S. industries alive has generated some 233,000 auto sector jobs.
Romney famously shunned that option and criticized Obama's lifeline effort to save American auto makers. That, along with his history as a job-destroying corporate raider, suggests Romney's dedication to American workers and jobs is weaker than his campaign rhetoric. Obama's steady hand and concern for ordinary American workers is clearly preferable.