With job growth stuck a slower pace than in any recovery in the last half century, the presidential campaign now turns on which candidate -- President Barack Obama or Gov. Mitt Romney -- has the better plan to boost employment. The latest jobs data will do little to change the debate.
The economy added just 96,000 new jobs in August, well below the roughly 130,000 economists had been expecting. Gains in the prior two months were revised down by a combined 41,000. Manufacturers cut 15,000 jobs last month, while another 7,000 government jobs were lost. Temporary employment fell by almost 5,000 workers.
Other recent employment measures have painted a somewhat better picture. Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, and a private survey by payroll processor ADP found that companies created some 200,000 new jobs in August. Another private report showed that service sector companies, such as hotels, retailers, and financial services firms, expanded at a faster rate last month.
For many voters, the health of the job market is summed up in the unemployment rate tracked by a separate government survey. That number, which posted a drop to 8.1 percent in August from 8.3 percent in July, could help bolster Obama's claim of slow, steady progress in getting Americans back to work.
But a closer look at the data undercuts that argument. The jobless rate fell last month largely because so many people gave up looking for work, went back to school, retired or otherwise left the workforce. Their departure shrank the official count of the labor pool to the lowest portion of the total population in more than 30 years.
"Under those circumstances, it is hard to characterize the drop in the unemployment rate as any sort of good news," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics.
With the current pace of job growth stalled, the Obama campaign this week tried to shift voters' attention to the future. In his speech Thursday night, the president argued that the economy is still suffering the lingering damage from a once-in-a-lifetime financial crisis created by Wall Street excesses. While he acknowledged only halting progress in repairing economy and appealed for patience, he stressed his administration's commitment to help households still suffering from the impact of the Great Recession.
Republicans, including Obama's opponent, argue that government spending on the kind of programs Obama highlighted are precisely what is holding back economic growth. They also argue that the White House has stunted the recovery with too much regulation and taxation.
Romney was quick to seize on Friday's job data to try to dampen Obama's Thursday night appeal to voters to elect him to a second term.
"If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover," Romney said in a statement after the jobs report.
The government will issue two more rounds of monthly jobs data before voters go to the polls in November. While the monthly payroll growth has become a proxy for the health of the job market, the data are notoriously fluid and subject to revisions that could swing the payrolls number up or down by as much as 100,000 in either direction. Those two upcoming reports aren't likely to reshape the campaign.
While both sides disagree on the causes, there's no disputing that this is the worst economic recovery in 50 years. This far into the previous five recoveries, the economy was expanding at an average pace of 4.4 percent, twice the current average.
Though new hiring has been crawling along at a snail's pace, companies are still managing to squeeze more work out of their existing staffs. Corporate profits are rising, in part, because that weak job market has all but halted wage growth since the 2007 recession ended. Average hourly earnings, along with the number of hours worked, were flat again in August, according to Friday's data.
Many employers say their reluctance to hire stems from uncertainty over the policies that will be implemented by the next occupants of Congress and the White House. The most immediate concern is a disastrous combination of year-end tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff." Unless defused, the package approved last summer will almost certainly plunge the economy back into a nasty recession.
But no matter who wins the election, it's far from clear that either party will be able to resolve the budget impasse.
"The lame-duck Congress will punt the "fiscal cliff" problem down the road, postponing the tax hikes and spending cuts for a few months," said IHS Global Insight chief U.S. economist Nigel Gault. "That means that extreme uncertainty over fiscal policy is likely to remain a fact of life - and a deterrent to risk-taking - well into 2013."
That uncertainty - and reluctance to hire - will be stoked by a series of other forces holding back the four-year-old recovery:
- While subpar economic growth feels like a recession to many Americans, Europeans are coping with the real thing. The economic contraction that began in troubled economies of Greece and Spain is now spreading to Germany, the flywheel of Europe's economy, the largest in the world. China, along with the developing economies that feed its massive manufacturing machine, is in an economic slowdown that Beijing has so far been unable to reverse.
- The budget impasse in the U.S. is due largely to huge, and rising, cost of providing health care and retirement income to an aging population. The dearth of private retirement savings will bring a slowdown in consumer spending as baby boomers continue to tighten their belts. Those trends are irreversible.
- With wage growth stagnant, growth in spending remains weak for consumers in every age group. The boom in borrowing during the 2000s helped offset sluggish wage growth. The resulting housing bust destroyed trillions of dollars in household wealth. Though the housing market is beginning to recover, it will take at least a decade for prices to recover to the 2006 peak.
- As private employers have slowed the pace of new hires, state and local governments are still shedding workers. The Obama administration's massive federal stimulus program - now criticized by Republicans for failing to produce the number of jobs originally projected - helped blunt those layoffs. As those funds have dried up, local governments have been hit with lower sales and property tax receipts, cuts in state aid and, in some cases, mandated tax caps.