Rhetoric can't mask unemployment numbers

So now we know why President Barack Obama was so flat and desperate in his important convention speech from Charlotte, N.C., last week. It wasn't from the strain of comparing himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic holy ghost of the federal leviathan.

I figure that what plagued him was something else. He had bad news on his mind. And now we know it too:

The August unemployment rate was reported Friday as 8.1 percent — though the real unemployment number that isn't regularly reported is almost two times higher than that, 14.7 percent.

The bleak numbers come in a U.S. Department of Labor report that was released Friday, an indictment of the president's inability to get Americans back to work.

His stubborn insistence that government — and not small business — is the way to grow jobs and the economy has always been wrong. That he keeps insisting, with 88.9 million Americans out of work, has become morally unacceptable.

Government programs and contracts can't get it done. They've never been the way to get it done. They might take care of political patronage, but they're not the way to build an economy. Obama is smart enough to know this. But instead he invokes FDR at his convention, offering promises of what government can do if we only have faith in it.

But after you strip away the rhetoric, what remains are the numbers. They speak too. Even when politicians stop talking, those numbers keep screaming across America, month after month, giving the people of this country little confidence that it'll get better.

The early news coverage Friday reported that the unemployment rate fell from 8.3 to 8.1 percent, with headlines suggesting it wasn't all that bad, maybe even a slight positive for the president. On the car radio as I drove to work, I heard the bad news tossed together with what the Republicans said, making it all seem like just more political bickering.

It wasn't all that bad. It was worse.

The reason the unemployment fell to 8.1 percent was that 368,000 Americans had given up looking for work, bringing the total number of those not in the labor force to 88.9 million people. So the 8.1 percent figure would have been higher if those 368,800 hadn't finally quit on finding a job.

Think on that. They gave up or it would have been worse.

For months now, political writers have cited an unemployment rate hovering above 8 percent. But that's not the real unemployment number, and I wish my colleagues would stop reporting it that way. All that does is measure people who are looking for work.

The more telling number is the underemployment statistic, which includes Americans who've lost their jobs and are looking for new ones while taking a lesser-paying gig, say part-time hours at a supermarket, loading dock, kitchen or warehouse.

If you count Americans both unemployed and underemployed, the statistic is 14.7 percent. That's the one that should be used in news accounts and referred to by Americans. Because it's the number that explains the real anguish of people who are slowly being broken.

And even that percentage is an understatement, since it doesn't include the millions who have simply given up.

The bleak jobless numbers come at a terrible time for Obama, with the conventions over and Nov. 6 fast approaching. But that's the problem with reality. You can't hypnotize it with pretty words and clouds of Hopium. Reality doesn't care. It just comes at you, like the phone call from the boss telling you he's got some bad news.

Many of you who watched the president's speech on TV — as I did with this bum knee that kept me from being at the conventions for the first time in years — saw a different Obama. Some of you thought his rhetoric was spectacular or at least inspiring. But liberal and conservative analysts were equally disappointed and called it empty. Sure, you'll find tribalists and cheerleaders, but there wasn't much there.

It was a lame speech, yes, but I've reconsidered and now think it may have been his most courageous speech.

I'm not saying I agree with it, but thinking on what he knew as he stood there on the stage has caused me to reconsider his desperate delivery. Presidents are routinely briefed on employment statistics before they're released the next day to the public.

So he must have known what was coming Friday, and still he stood there and tried to rally his party, invoking FDR shepherding America through the Great Depression, telling Americans he had faith in them, when what he was really doing was begging America to have faith him, with those job numbers coming at him the next morning. There is courage in desperation.

"We need to fill the hole left by this recession faster," Obama said in a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H., after the statistics were released. "We need to come out of this crisis stronger than when we went in."

Only 96,000 jobs were added in August. And some 28,000 of them were jobs in restaurants and bars. So we're talking about kitchen helpers and bartenders and wait staff. And I bet many feel they're lucky to have those jobs. Americans once thought of careers. Now we think of just getting paid.

"We know it's not good enough," Obama said. "We need to create more jobs, faster."

No, Mr. President, it's not good enough. It's not good enough at all.

jskass@tribune.com

twitter @John_Kass

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