The US economy added jobs at anemic rate last month, spurring a new round of partisan sniping over who is to blame for the nation’s economic woes as the presidential campaign enters its final stretch.
US employers added just 96,000 jobs in August, significantly less than the 140,000 gained in July, the Labor Department reported Friday. The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent, from 8.3 percent in July, but that was largely the result of people abandoning job searches because they felt their prospects were too bleak. Only those who actively seek work are counted in unemployment figures.
Economists portrayed the job gains as disappointing, but said they were consistent with the slow, erratic recovery that has been underway for more than three years, following the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“The numbers aren’t great, and they’re not terrible,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief US economist at High Frequency Economics, a forecasting firm in Valhalla, N.Y. “At the end of the day, it’s not too much of a game-changer.”
The report, one of three left before the November election, comes on the heels of the Democratic National Convention and renewed promises by President Obama to find ways to boost job creation. Republicans seized on the jobs report as evidence of the president’s failure to deliver on earlier promises to fix a broken economy.
“If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover,” GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in a statement. “After 43 straight months of unemployment above 8 percent, it is clear that President Obama just hasn’t lived up to his promises and his policies haven’t worked.”
But Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis issued a reminder that when the president was elected, the economy was in “free fall, credit markets were frozen, and our nation was bleeding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month.”
“An economic crisis that was decades in the making will not be solved overnight,” she said in a statement, “but our recovery remains on a stable trajectory of positive job growth,”
A Sept. 2 poll of 1,000 likely voters for The Hill, a newspaper in Washington, showed that a majority, 52 percent, believed the country is worse off today than it was four years ago and that President Obama does not deserve reelection. Fifty-four percent said Obama does not deserve reelection based solely on his job performance, according to the poll, which had margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Most economists said they expect a long slog out of the recession. While the plodding pace of recovery is largely the result of the damage done by the financial crisis and deep downturn that followed, economists said, congressional gridlock and other political uncertainties have contributed to the nation’s problems.
For example, Obama and Romney have starkly different approaches to taxes and economic policy, but neither has unveiled a detailed plan on how to boost the recovery. Uncertainty about issues such as their tax rates have made businesses less likely to invest and hire.
“Businesses don’t know what to expect, so you’re seeing weakness and cautiousness,” said Andrew Husby, an economist at Decision Economics in New York. “There’s much uncertainty about how all the pieces will fit together come January.”
Stocks edged higher after the employment report, largely because of expectations that the disappointing job growth will lead the Federal Reserve to take further steps to spur the recovery, such as pushing mortgage rates lower. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, citing “grave concerns” about the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate in a speech in Jackson Hole, Wyo., last week, hinted the central bank could act when policy makers meet next week.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 14 points to end the day at 13,306.64 Friday. The index is up 270 points or 2 percent during the last three days.
Among the factors weighing on the recovery are government job cuts, the result of the slowdown in tax collections following the recession, said Paul Osterman, a professor of management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. State and local governments shed 7,000 jobs in August alone, the report said.
Osterman said the Obama administration attempted to staunch those losses last year when the president introduced an $447 billion jobs bill that would have cut business taxes while rehiring teachers and emergency medical workers laid off in government cutbacks. The additional stimulus failed to win congressional support amid criticism that it would contribute to the soaring national debt.
“This is partly an economic problem and partly a political problem,” said Osterman, who defended the jobs bill. “Are we where we want to be in the recovery? No, it’s slower than anyone would like, but we’re climbing out of a big hole.”
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, a forecasting firm in West Chester, Pa., said the groundwork has already been laid for a stronger recovery and time is what’s needed. US companies are not laying off employees and corporate finances are healthy, he said. In a year, he predicted, the US economy will be “off and running.”
“All the ingredients are there,” he said, “and whoever gets elected as the next president is going to get the credit.”