March Job Figures: We’ve Entered the “Meh” Phase

The March jobs report is out and well, it was pretty uninspiring. Given the last several months, most of which have brought steady if unimpressive job gains, it’s clear we’re out of the oh-crap-let’s-panic phase and have moved into the gentler “meh” phase. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough, for either Americans, who deserve better, nor Democrats, who are hoping for a big bounceback.

Democratic candidates are desperate for anything that will pull attention away from Obamacare, which majorities of voters continue to dislike. As CNBC reported earlier this week,

“Democrats are fervently hoping that the lackluster reports over the last three months were mostly the result of a brutal winter that delayed construction projects and slowed other industries that might otherwise have hired more workers. . .

[A number over 300,000] would be a huge relief to Democrats. The party is already facing a drag from the health-care law and an unpopular president in their efforts to limit almost certain losses in the House and prevent a GOP takeover of the Senate. Running on a decelerating economy would spell disaster for Democrats.

Even the status quo, modest monthly job gains of around 200,000 with similarly paltry earnings increases, would be fairly bad for the party that controls the White House and Senate.”

But Democrats didn’t get 300,000 as they were hoping for. In fact, they didn’t even quite get to the 200,000 that most analysts were calling for. Instead, total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 192,000 jobs and the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 6.7 percent.

There is no doubt that 192,000 new jobs is a good thing, but it’s not a great thing either. When discussing this number it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that the population grows by about 150,000 people each month, so job growth needs to be over and above that threshold to truly make a dent in the unemployed. It’s also worth noting that this job report follows on an extremely weak winter for hiring that was further dampened by serious snowfall that can severely depress consumer behavior. A big bounce was expected as pent-up demand could finally be unleashed, but none really came.

As POLITICO’s Ben White reports, that’s a big problem for Democrats who are counting on something more:

This was supposed to be the year the U.S. economy would finally break out of the doldrums — the year it would deliver the kind of robust growth that could lift President Barack Obama’s dismal approval ratings and help Democrats avoid a shellacking in November.

So far, it’s been easy to dismiss weak economic news as the result of an awful winter. But those excuses ended with Friday’s March jobs report, the first of spring, which showed a lower-than-expected gain of 192,000 — Wall Street traders were looking for something closer to 300,000 — and an economy not losing speed but not exactly revving up for the run to the November midterm elections. . . .

Friday’s jobs number comes against a backdrop of dashed hopes. Late last year, major forecasting firms said the economy could shake off its anemic growth of the past four years and heat up to a 3 percent pace or more in 2014, which would be the fastest rate since 2005. But the first three months of the year saw one weak number after another from job creation, to consumer spending, to construction. Was all of that bad news just the result of frigid temperatures and heavy snows? Or were all the rosy predictions just a bunch of wishful thinking? The answers to these questions could decide the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections.

Unfortunately, I think we can chalk much of Democrats’ optimism up to wishful thinking. For while the economic environment is definitely improving, it’s doing so in spite of harmful government policies that depress investment and hiring. Democrats have created a “new normal” in which extremely slow growth is labeled as progress while other important indicators like wage growth, long-term unemployment and workforce participation get ignored.

That’s not good enough. And neither is the consistent drumbeat of ho-hum job reports.