Dismal jobs numbers raise the stakes for Obama

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks during a Rural Economic Forum, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011, at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa, during his three-day economic bus tour.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

As President Obama comes face to face with the sober realities of the economy, his task of jumpstarting growth and encouraging voters to stay optimistic becomes all the more daunting.

The numbers are grim: The economy added no new jobs in August, the Labor Department said today. The White House's own Office of Management and Budget released its economic forecasts yesterday, and including economic data that's come in since June, the OMB expects the unemployment rate to hover close to 9 percent through all of this year and next.

The president has just 14 months to assure voters that they'll be better off during his second term. It's clear the White House is aware of what a challenge that will be. In a White House blog post today, Katharine Abraham, a member of Mr. Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, called the latest unemployment figures "unacceptably high." Next week, Mr. Obama will deliver a speech to lay out a series of initiatives to spur economic growth -- he'll give the speech before a joint session of Congress, underscoring its gravity.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday that if Congress adopts the president's proposals, they should be able to help bring unemployment under 9 percent.

"The president will come forward with specific proposals that by any objective measure would add to growth and job creation in the short term," he said. "And that will be part of a broad package that reflects his commitment to grow the economy now and to build a foundation for economic growth for the future to ensure that we win the future."

Even if Washington could turn the economy around, it's unlikely to do in a way that's significant enough to keep Mr. Obama's bid for re-election from struggling under the weight of high unemployment figures. It's often noted that no president since World War II has been reelected with unemployment above 7.2 percent.

That has left liberals clamoring for the president to push for bold new stimulus when he delivers his speech next week. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote this week that voters re-elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt when there was 17 percent unemployment because they "understood they were living through a global economic crisis that wouldn't be solved overnight."

The liberal grassroots group MoveOn.org commissioned a poll showing that the president's 2008 supporters who disapprove of the way he's handling the economy think he's too willing to compromise with Republicans and are seeking bold action.

It's clear, however, that if Mr. Obama tries to put forward any liberal policies, they'll face a head-on collision with Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner this morning tweeted that "job growth continues to be undermined by the triple threat of higher taxes, more failed 'stimulus' spending, & excessive federal regulations."

So far, the president appears focused on putting forward a moderate agenda he thinks can win bipartisan support -- measures such as extending unemployment insurance and extending the payroll tax cut. But some are wondering whether today's worse-than-expected statistics will empower the president to take a different approach.

"If today's job report (zero new jobs in August) doesn't push O toward a bold jobs plan he'll fight for, nothing will," tweeted liberal economist Robert Reich.