Next week President Barack Obama will stand behind the lectern in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives for a joint session of Congress and deliver what will likely be the defining speech of his presidency. With the nation’s economy reeling and the American public increasingly frustrated, the President and Congress are bearing blame for the lack of progress on the jobs front. For President Obama, the economy has been pushed to the forefront of his policy and political agenda; as he prepares to set out to make the case for his re-election in 2012. Complicating matters for the President is the restlessness of some self-defined “progressives” in the Democratic Party and Black leaders, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who are calling for him to take a more aggressive and confrontational approach with Republican opposition on the Hill. As he prepares for next Thursday’s speech, today’s release of the August employment numbers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics serves as a pretext for the jobs plan President Obama will lay out before the American public during his address.
The news is not good and might be an indication that the President will be playing “defense” on his economic record throughout the 2012 campaign. The unemployment rate for August was 9.1% and no new nonfarm jobs were created last month. Those numbers indicate that the recovery from the Great Recession has stalled, putting more pressure on President Obama to craft a breakthrough jobs plan to resuscitate the economy. Moreover, the August jobs numbers again illustrated the depth to which African-Americans have been affected by the economic downturn. While white unemployment is at 8 percent, the Black unemployment rate is 16.7%. The unemployment rate for Black men is 18 percent and 46.5 percent for Black young adults, age 16 to 19 years. Black men and young adults are faring the worse among all groups reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Government employment, a key employer of African-Americans, continued to trend downward in August, shedding 17,000 jobs. The BLS report notes that since employment in government peaked in September 2008, local government has lost 550,000 jobs. The decline in government employment has taken a particularly hard toll on Black workers, and the news going forward is not good as states across the country are downsizing their state government workforce. Government and industrial sector employment were two key pathways to the middle class for African-Americans, and the loss of jobs in these areas has meant not only a rise in Black unemployment but the decimation of the Black middle class. The Black joblessness crisis remains a point of contention within the African-American community, and is fueling calls by many Blacks for the President to publicly acknowledge the need for a targeted approach to assist Black workers.
While employment in the health care sector continued to trend upward, adding 30,000 jobs in August; employment in construction, transportation, utilities, financial services, and leisure and hospitality showed little change over the month. Making matters worse for all workers is the decline in hourly earnings last month by 3 cents, or 0.1 percent, to $23.09. It is reversal from July when there was an 11 cent gain. The average workweek also declined by 0.1 hour to 34.2 hours last month.
These numbers raise the stakes for President Obama to put forth a jobs plan that will attract Republican support while quieting critics within his own party. It is a balancing act that will put the administration to its greatest test and frame the 2012 presidential election. For an administration that began with high expectations and the euphoria of historic change, it is now faced with the prospect of a campaign season run on “bad news” and a skeptical public that will need convincing that the President is capable of turning the economy around. Current economic conditions, however, do not automatically give Republicans a clear path to the White House. Most polls have indicated that voters are more dissatisfied with Congress than the President, and the current crop of Republican candidates have yet to win widespread public confidence or convey expertise on economic matters to make the case for their election. Next Thursday’s speech by President Obama will be the unofficial kick-off of the 2012 campaign.