Good News on Unemployment

The biggest news of the day for WH 2012? That’s going to be the unemployment claims report. At least, probably.

Here’s the story. Unemployment claims started falling about three months ago, and today was a big one. Only 366,000 people filed during the past week, the lowest number since May 2008 — early in the recession, and well before the severe downturn in fall 2008. And the four-week average, which avoids some of the volatility of the single week reports, dropped to 387,750, also a three-year low.

That’s definitely good news, but comes with a lot of caveats. First of all, these numbers get revised all the time, and in either direction. Even the four-week average can be distorted by random stuff that masks the true rate, again in either direction. And Brad DeLong has some caution about the seasonal adjustments. And even if these numbers are exactly correct, we’re at best just under the point where layoffs are low enough that the unemployment rate can start coming down (the real rate, that is, not the calculated rate that ignores people who have given up). So Barack Obama’s campaign shouldn’t break out the bubbly quite yet.

If the numbers do hold up and then accelerate, it is worth noting that political scientists are confident that it’s the recent performance of the economy, and not the four-year performance or even the election-time unemployment rate, that really makes a difference electorally. Indeed, jobs numbers turn out to be less important than broader economic indicators, such as income growth. Of course, all of these things tend to run together, and clearly a healthy job market is a big part of a healthy economy, so we’re talking very good news for Obama here…if, again, it really takes hold.

One more point: if in fact the economy starts functioning reasonably well, a whole lot of the deficit politics that dominated 2011 are going to fade away, or at least become a lot more manageable. The truth is that economic performance is probably a whole lot more important to the federal budget than the federal budget is to the economy, especially in the short run. Again, I certainly wouldn’t want to put too much weight on today’s number, or even the four-week average, but the point is that there’s quite a bit at stake for electoral, budget, and legislative politics. Not to mention, of course, the well-being of the American people.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.