Obama’s “Premonition”

Sudeep Reddy of the Wall Street Journal‘s Real Time Economics blog offers a small but important factoid to consider in anticipation of the president’s acceptance speech in Charlotte tonight: he’ll know the August Jobs Reports numbers the rest of us will wait until 8:30 AM EDT on Friday to hear:

Mr. Obama doesn’t have to wait until the formal release to see the numbers. Under a decades-long practice, a select group of U.S. officials learns the contents of each month’s jobs report on the Thursday evening before its release. The Bureau of Labor Statistics delivers the information sometime Thursday afternoon to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, which analyzes the data and prepares a memo for the president. (The CEA chairman or director of the National Economic Council often informs the president in person.)

Huh. I did not know that. Reddy suggests this could affect the final speech-tweaking, as it seems to have done in 2004, when George W. Bush faced an analogous situation:

Assuming the president gets a briefing on Thursday before his speech, what might he do with it? He isn’t exactly getting on stage, for one of the most important speeches of his career, to recite Labor Department data. But he conceivably could tweak his adjectives in describing the economy if the employment report is a surprise in either direction….

Eight years ago, President George W. Bush faced a somewhat similar scenario. His speech at the Republican convention in September 2004 came the night before a monthly jobs report, following a year of choppy data (and after what was routinely described as a jobless recovery). The prior jobs report showed that payrolls rose just 32,000 in July, so he would have had good reason to worry about more trouble in the labor market. But his convention speech offered plenty of upbeat commentary about the economy, which means he either knew the next round of data or didn’t care. The report released the morning after his speech showed a substantially better performance, a gain of 144,000 jobs in August.

It’s probably not something to obsess about during Obama’s speech. Maybe Reddy’s wrong about the advance notice (though it certainly sounds plausible). The consensus predictions last I heard was for a report indicating 130,000 net new jobs in August (though there is considerable variation in what different economists expect) , a level that’s neither great nor bad; if the actual numbers are in this range, they’d probably have very little effect on presidential rhetoric even if Obama is otherwise inclined to act on his “premonition” for Friday. And as the whole hep world is saying today, the main burden of his speech is to project a post-election vision and governing agenda, not to reframe his economic record (Bill Clinton’s already done a very good job of that), much less talk about micro-trends.

Still, it’s intriguing to know that the president may head to the podium with a bit of knowledge about something the business and political communities will be spending a good part of Friday morning discussing, at least if the numbers don’t almost exactly meet expectations. If you get bored during the speech, you can certainly look for hints, at the risk of buying into a snails-eye-view of the presidential election.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.