The August jobs report of the Labor Department is not great news either for the U.S. economy or for the Obama campaign. The headline drop on the measured unemployment rate, from 8.3 to 8.1 percent, conceals deeper weaknesses.
The economy generated only 96,000 jobs in August, far lower than the monthly average of around 200,000 in the spring. The nominal unemployment rate declined only because more people have given up looking for work. The ratio of employment to population declined by 0.2 percent.
The Labor Department also revised the July and August monthly jobs numbers downward by about 20,000 each, leaving the 2012 job-creation performance below that of 2011.
At times, Barack Obama's speech last night felt like a State of the Union address—a lengthy recitation of issues, one after another, during which you could imagine pundits writing "Booooring!" in their notes, and then you'd find out the next day that the public loved it. But the limitations of the speech demonstrated the difficulty Obama has as an incumbent. The expectations are high any time he gives a major speech, but last night's was a reminder that a large part of what made Obama such an effective orator in 2008 was particular to the role of challenger, and something that simply can't be duplicated now.
To put last night in context, we have to go back to 2008. In the last election, Obama's speeches had not just a second-person perspective but an active second-person perspective, talking not only about who you are but what you are doing. This was absolutely critical to giving his campaign that feeling of history in the making, and history as something participatory. It tapped into a deep yearning among all Americans but particularly among liberals. Here's something I wrote about it at the time...
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—When the economy is poor, an incumbent president has few options for reelection. If he looks back, he reminds voters of hardship. If he looks forward, he seems like he’s ignoring the problem. His only choice is to defend his record, and hit the other side for unfair attacks. It’s not an effective approach—voters don’t like it when the president pleads for fairness. Challengers have an easier task. As long as they can identify hardship and propose a plan that looks effective, voters will join their cause.
There’s oh so many reasons to hate the phrase “mom-in-chief," the highly criticized phrase that cropped up in the end of Michelle Obama’s otherwise well-received speech Tuesday night. Let’s start with the most obvious, which is it’s yet another reminder that even amongst liberals in the 21st century, women still have to reassure the public that just because they’re independent doesn’t mean they don’t love their children. It’s also another example of how women are still expected to define themselves not by their accomplishments in the world, but by their relationships to other people, in a way men are never expected to do.
At this year's Republican convention, the speeches were largely competent but uninspiring. Do you remember anything Marco Rubio said? It was only a week ago. No, none of their speeches will stand for the ages. The Democrats seem to be faring better, with Michelle Obama's terrific speech on Tuesday night and former President Bill Clinton's wonktastic 90s throwback address on Wednesday. In advance of President Obama's speech tonight, here's a review of some of the most notable speeches (for better and, occasionally, for worse) of the last 80 years.
Last June, Ohio’s Republican state legislators sought to pass an extremely strict voter ID law, with deeply disturbing implications for minority voters. It would have been among the strictest in the nation, requiring voters to show a government-issued ID with virtually no recourse for those lacking the necessary documents. But the opposition came from an unexpected place—Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted.
When I first read that the Democratic platform said nothing about Jerusalem, I was quite impressed. Quietly, by omission, the party had brought a moment of honesty to the fantasy-ridden American political discussion about Israel.
We don't yet know how many people watched Bill Clinton's speech last night, but since on the first night of the Democratic convention ratings were a bit higher than for the Republican convention, it's fair to assume we're talking about something in the vicinity of 30 million viewers. Which is fine, but it isn't anything close to a majority of the electorate. But even if most voters didn't actually see Clinton's speech, just the fact that everyone is aware that he's out there vouching for Barack Obama can have an impact. Because the basic question of the campaign—should we keep this guy and his people in charge, or turn it over to that other guy and his people?—will be answered in a context created by people's memories of recent history.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph are waiting for a bus, glistening ever so slightly as they stand in the near-100-degree heat of a late June afternoon, huddled under a couple of pine trees that border an asphalt parking lot in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. The blocky, charmless building the lot services is home to the district office of Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, a Tea Party Republican, and the bus the sisters are waiting for isn’t any old municipal four-wheeler. The Nuns on the Bus are coming to town.
CHARLOTTE—For the last month, Team Romney has been playing a dangerous game with the Democratic Party. With its false attacks on the administration’s welfare waivers and its constant invocation of his policies, Team Romney has tried to present their candidate as the true heir to Bill Clinton.
A funny thing happened to Bill Clinton on the way to the White House in 1992. He had planned to run as a New Democrat, the champion of the post-industrial economy, a Southern Gary Hart, against the more traditional liberal Mario Cuomo, the Democratic frontrunner as the primary season loomed. Then, in December 1991, Cuomo stunned the political word and scrambled Clinton’s calculations by announcing he wouldn’t run. Clinton’s leading primary opponent became former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who was running not just as the more upscale, new economy candidate but on a platform—Simpson-Bowles avant la lettre—of scaling back Medicare and Social Security in the cause of fiscal prudence.
Make no mistake: One of the major themes at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) was invented by one of its keynote speakers. A little more than a year ago, Elizabeth Warren* told a supporter in a living room in Andover, Massachusetts, that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” What she meant was that American business thrived because it took root in a stable democracy that looked after the common good and invested in roads and education. She expanded that: Anyone who’s benefited has an intergenerational responsibility to pay the fruits of that investment forward.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—Outside of the convention center, and around downtown Charlotte, are a handful of anti-abortion activists. It’s hard to miss them. They carry large signs plastered with graphic photos of dismembered fetuses and preach their message with loudspeakers:
“I’m not a member of any organized political party,” Will Rogers famously declared, “I’m a Democrat.” Rogers would not recognize the 2012 Democrats. I’ve been attending conventions since 1964, when as a student I smuggled floor passes to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party insurgents in Atlantic City. And I’ve never seen anything as well choreographed and unified as night one of the 2012 convention.
Did you watch it last night? It was an amazing night of TV, of Twitter (that instant snark convo), and of politics. My twitter feed was full of journos saying to each other: Wow, there’s a lot of energy here! Don’t you feel more buzz than in Tampa? I thought this was supposed to be the dispirited convention, but these folks are excited. You could see that in every breakaway shot of the convention floor: Folks were cheering, nodding, yelling back in witness. Over and over again, the Dems boasted proudly about standing up for health care, equal pay, LGBT rights (including the freedom to marry), and yes, reproductive rights, without apology.