By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 3/5/2004 1:13:48 PM ET 2004-03-05T18:13:48

Whatever economists might say about causes and forecasts, for Republican strategists the sluggish job creation numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday were a reminder of something like a chronic infection that won’t quite go away.

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Compared to Western Europe and compared to the United States of the early 1980s, the American economy today isn't afflicted by dire sickness.

The German economy, for example, has not grown at all in the past six quarters. Unemployment there stands at 11 percent, as bad as the U.S. jobless rate at the worst stage of the 1982 recession.

And despite the disappointing net gain of only 21,000 jobs in February, there are signs that the American economy is growing. Personal consumption spending increased 2.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003, after an increase of 6.9 percent in the third.

But Friday’s weak job creation data will get headlines, and surely Republicans would like undecided voters to see more signs of improvement before they make up their minds in the fall.

Sizing up the jobs data Friday, Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., the chairman of the House Small Business Committee, told, "Did you see the category where the largest employment was created? Government jobs. That's not good. The recovery should not be built on more bureaucrats getting hired."

Manzullo's Rockford-based district, a bastion of the tool-and-die industry, has seen a loss of 11,000 jobs over three years. He said, "the big problem is we continue to lose manufacturing jobs, 3,000 in February. We continue to go in the wrong direction."

Manzullo is pushing tax legislation designed to give a boost to U.S-based factories, whether owned by Americans or by foreigners.

For President Bush and Republicans running on the ballot with him, such as Manzullo, what may matter most in political terms is the size and quickness of improvement in the job creation number.

Ronald Reagan, a Republican whom his Democratic adversaries ridiculed as clueless and indifferent to the suffering of working people, just as President Bush is ridiculed by Democrats today, was re-elected in 1984 when the unemployment rate was 7.4 percent — nearly two percentage points higher than it is now.

But unemployment had fallen from 10.8 percent to 7.4 percent in two years, from November of 1982 to October of 1984.

Stuck near six percent
By contrast, in the past two years, the unemployment rate has stayed just a bit above or below 6 percent. Exactly two years ago, it was 5.7 percent, last month it was 5.6 percent.

Bush isn't seeing the dramatic change of direction that benefited Reagan.

“Americans have a clear choice in this election,” Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, told reporters Friday. “They can either suffer with more and more job losses that rip the heart out of our economy or they can give George Bush a new job.”

Neither Bush nor Kerry is now proposing the classic job creation schemes (public works projects, roads, bridges and tunnels), but Kerry is proposing more limited steps such as a tax credit to encourage manufacturing companies to keep their factories in America.

Mapping it out
While the national numbers get the headlines, it requires a look at the electoral map to estimate whether the jobs data gives Kerry real opportunities to exploit.

Nov. 2 is above all a battle for individual states and their electoral votes. And what’s striking about the state unemployment data is that the states with the highest unemployment are states that Democrat Al Gore carried in 2000, in other words, places where Kerry will likely win.

In the lower 48, the states with the highest unemployment are Michigan and Oregon, each with 7.2 percent unemployment in December, the latest month for which data is available, and Washington state, at 6.8 percent.

If the contest in November is as close as it now seems to be, the targets for Democrats will need to include states that Bush carried in 2000, where the jobs picture is at least a bit better, such as Arizona, Missouri, and Nevada.

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