The 2010 Political Timebomb Is Unemployment

John Nichols |

Since the fall of last year, the official jobless rate has been over ten percent, while the unofficial rate (taking in the severely underemployed and those who have given up looking) has been over 17 percent.

American employers eliminated 4.2 million jobs in 2009 and sent unemployment soaring into double digits for the first time in more than a quarter century.

Since the fall of last year, the official jobless rate has been over ten percent, while the unofficial rate (taking in the severely underemployed and those who have given up looking) has been over 17 percent.

And, despite the ridiculous "green-shoots" speculation of the Obama administration and overblown "recovery" fantasies of the financial media that has blown every major economic story of recent years, the situation is getting worse.

Analysts had predicted that December layoffs would number around 8,000.

Instead, the figure was more than ten times higher: 85,000.

Unemployment held steady at 10 percent – not because the job market is stabilizing but because tens of thousands of Americans gave up looking for work and are no longer counted among the unemployed.

The sharp drop in the labor force is not merely an indicator of the real unemployment rate. It is a confirmation of the mounting hopelessness in vast stretches of the United States – particularly in California, southern New England and the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes States, where communities are being devastated by a federal auto-industry "bailout" that continues to encourage carmakers to shutter factories in U.S. cities and to relocate production to Mexico and China.

The new unemployment numbers are devastating, and they should send up red flares in Washington, a city where officials have so far has been absurdly neglectful of the most serious social, economic and political crisis facing the country.

The Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress are pouring a great deal of energy into trying to salvage something acceptable from the health-care reform debacle and, in the aftermath of the Christmas Day flight scare, they are increasingly focused on "war-on-terror" issues. (They may even be starting to recognize the extent to which the White House bungled things by spending a fall focused on Afghanistan when potential threats were elsewhere.)

There is no question that health-care policy and homeland security are serious matters.

But the most serious matter facing this White House and this Congress is mounting unemployment. As Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has been struggling to turn Washington’s attention toward jobs issues for much of the past year said Friday: "Today’s jobs report underscores the need for Congress and the Obama administration to make jobs an immediate priority. The report shows that employment continues to lag so swift action is needed."

The United States has entered a new election year. The 2010 cycle promises to be one of the most volatile political moments since the economically-driven realigning elections of 1958 (which confirmed long-term Democratic control of the Congress) and 1980 (which saw the Republicans reassert themselves under the leadership of Ronald Reagan).

As in those previous years, political leaders are worried about serious domestic- and foreign-policy concerns.

But the voters are worried about jobs and the economy.

President Obama and the Democrats in Congress face the prospect of serious setbacks in 2010 congressional and state races if they do not recognize that there is a disconnect between their focus and that of the American people who will decide the political direction of the country in November.

Unemployment is a devastating social reality for those experiencing it.

Unemployment is a frightening economic reality for those who still have jobs but who wonder whether their jobs are threatened – and who constrain their spending and lifestyle choices accordingly.

But unemployment is something else altogether for elected officials who occupy positions of power. It is the single greatest threat to their political survival.

Forget about the personalities, the Chris Dodds and the Byron Dorgans.

Forget about the supposed accomplishments or failures of the administration and its "party-of-no" critics. The only accomplishment that could — or should — matter is a serious reduction in unemployment: a reduction that will only be achieved with new investments in infrastructure, a ramping up of green jobs initiatives, the creation of smarter incentives for hiring and retaining workers, and the abandonment of free-trade policies that cut U.S. manufacturing employment by more than half over the past decade.

No issue, no concern, is more likely to shift the sentiments of the electorate than mounting joblessness and economic instability. And there is no rhetorical flourish, no diversionary tactic, sufficient to win forgiveness from unemployment remains in double digits come election day – let alone if it is still rising.

If the president or congressional allies think health care reforms that for the most part won’t kick in for half a decade or mimicking George Bush’s tough-on-terror blathering is going to make voters forget the fact that one in ten of them are jobless or that one in seven of them are in dire employment straits, then the Democrats are in for the rudest of all political awakenings.

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