When bad figures count as good news

Individuals standing at a job fair Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The overall US unemployment rate in July fell to 9.1% from 9.2%

Yay! Unemployment is 9.1%! It is a measure of the times that this counts as good news, even though the official verdict is that this is "little changed" from previous months.

Still, we had expected worse, and after yesterday's plunge in the Dow, this would have unsettled the markets further.

For a while now President Barack Obama has been saying that dealing with unemployment is his main priority. And he said it again today, calling it his "singular focus". That is little wonder.

He faces the ghastly possibility of running for re-election against the background of a new recession.

Even without a double dip, his aides have told Politico, in a piece well worth reading, that "the numbers add up to defeat".

The trouble for the president is that he has few shots left in his locker. President Obama's economic advisor writes that "the unemployment rate remains unacceptably high and faster growth is needed to replace the jobs lost in the downturn".

Few would argue with that. But what can they do? In his speech today, Mr Obama repeated a number of measures:

  • Extending a tax credit for most Americans
  • Extending unemployment benefits
  • Getting construction workers to "rebuild America".

The first two may or may not be sensible things to do, but they are not going to solve the problem. The third sounds like a new stimulus package. Just the sort of thing a Republican House would want to block.

President Obama's only hope is that his opponents do not have any simple solutions either.

Those recommending cuts in government spending and giving the free market free reign may be right that this would help growth over the long-term.

But it would mean more pain in the short-term, and more disruption to the economy.

During election time, politicians can offer glib solutions and gimmicks. But America has had four hard years and lean times teach people to be suspicious of pat promises. They're waiting for a plan without platitudes.