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Which jobs president? Employment numbers damn Romney and Obama alike.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton claimed that Arkansas led the nation in employment growth when he was governor, with income rising at twice the U.S. average. Clinton used these two issues--employment and income--to define his economic record, successfully creating a contrast with Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush. That was the meaning of consultant James Carville's quip, "It's the economy, stupid."

Voters care more about jobs and paychecks than whether GDP is expanding, as Bush insisted it was in 1992. And today Clinton is best remembered for the 22.7 million jobs (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) created during his 1993-2001 presidency, a period largely coincident with the longest peacetime expansion (March 1991 to March 2001) in American history, as measured by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Heading into the November election, partisan attacks on Republican nominee Mitt Romney's record as Massachusetts governor and President Obama's anemic jobs and wages numbers since taking office are flowing freely. Ironically, amid all this the contender with the strongest jobs record will struggle to be heard as he mounts a third-party bid. But first let's consider the majors.

"During [Romney's] four years as governor," a campaign spokesman for President Obama charged in April, "Massachusetts had the fourth-worst job creation rate of any state in the nation." The accusation is based on the same statistic used by Clinton's '92 campaign: monthly nonfarm payroll employment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains payroll employment databases for the U.S., states, and local and metropolitan areas. One way to examine a governor's job-creation record is to compare total payroll employment from his first and final months in office.

BLS data show Massachusetts payroll employment at 3,223,500 when Romney entered office in January 2003 and 3,264,200 in December 2006 when he left. The numbers can be compared to those from other states, as the Obama campaign suggests, or to the U.S. average. The latter comparison is, if anything, even less flattering: Massachusetts's growth rate in jobs (1.3 percent) was substantially less than the U.S. average (5.0 percent) during Romney's years as governor.

But how does President Obama compare? Total U.S. payroll employment was lower this January (132,409,000) than in January 2009 (133,561,000) when he took office. Total employment should trend into positive territory later this year, though Obama's growth rate could be the lowest of any president in the history of the BLS time series, which dates to 1939.

Obama is also likely to achieve the ignominy of being the first Democratic incumbent to preside over a net loss of manufacturing jobs. Republicans might credibly raise this issue in swing-state Ohio, save for another fact culled from the data: Governor Romney also presided over a net loss of manufacturing jobs.

The successful presidential campaigns of Georgia's Democratic Governor Jimmy Carter (1971-1975) and California's Republican Governor Ronald Reagan (1967-1975) are analogous to Romney's race in at least one respect: each highlighted the weak jobs records of his incumbent opponent. Carter assailed President Gerald Ford's failure, saying at a September 1976 debate in Philadelphia, "We've got 500,000 more Americans out of jobs today than were out of work three months ago. And since Mr. Ford has been in office, in two years we've had a 50 percent increase in unemployment, from 5 million out of work ... to 7 1/2 million."

Four years later, in October 1980, Reagan turned the tables on President Carter, observing at their Cleveland debate, "there are 8 million men and women out of work in America today, and 2 million of those lost their jobs in just the last few months." Reagan concluded by asking, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

It isn't hard to imagine a debate later this year in which Romney argues, "We have more than 12 million men and women out of work in America today, and nearly 800,000 have lost their jobs since my opponent took office." But the similarities between Romney and Reagan or Carter break down in the dusty files of California's and Georgia's employment archives, which, unlike those of Massachusetts, reveal job growth under Governor Carter (16 percent) and Governor Reagan (25 percent) above the national average.

That leaves Romney the income card to play. Bill Clinton savaged George H.W. Bush's jobs record throughout the 1992 campaign. What if Bush had noted Governor Clinton's abysmal record on paychecks? Under Clinton, Arkansas perpetually ranked 48th or 49th among the states in income. Clinton failed to raise wages significantly despite the mathematical advantage of starting from a low base--though that allowed his advisers to claim, accurately but misleadingly, that income rose at twice the U.S. average.

Today the perception is that wages are stagnant under President Obama. Massachusetts is well of, income-wise, and Romney could argue his policies kept it that way. Only two states had higher incomes when Romney took office, and only Connecticut ranked higher when he departed. But can Romney articulate the idea that good economic policies lead to higher incomes not only for the rich but the middle class and poor as well?

If numerate independent voters are disenchanted with these choices, they may turn to the Libertarian Party's nominee--former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who recorded 15.3 percent employment growth, versus a U.S. average of 11.9 percent, during his 1995-2003 tenure. If the facts could speak for themselves in national politics, Johnson would get at least as much attention as his major-party rivals. Alas, that isn't the case.

Greg Kaza is an economist in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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Title Annotation:Front Line
Author:Kaza, Greg
Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2012
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