In April, the unemployment rate was 8.1 percent. In May, it rose, just a tiny bit, to 8.2 percent. A tenth of a percentage point does not seem like a big deal. Indeed, the Department of Labor describes the unemployment rate as “essentially unchanged.” And compared to this time last year, when the rate was 9 percent, people are mostly better off.

But the magic number for many observers is a number below 8 percent. According to many, should the unemployment rate drop to 7.5 or even 7.8 percent, President Barack Obama will have something to point to in terms of labor market progress. Should it rise above 8.5 percent, Republican candidate Mitt Romney can continue to pound on him about economic failure (that is, when his team is not misspelling “Amercia”). Between 7.8 percent and 8.5 percent is a question mark.

There is no help to be claimed from legislation and, indeed, many are finding their unemployment benefits running out. Job creation isn’t going to happen if it means spending money, because the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is hardly interested in economic stimulus that would do nothing more.

So, President Obama and the business sector that supports him are pretty much left to their own devices around issues of job creation. And it isn’t that the unemployed will flock to Romney–they may simply stay home.

As always, the number the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports is not the best number to review.

When those marginally attached to the labor market and those who work part time but want full-time work are included, the unemployment rate soars to 14.8 percent. The Black unemployment rate rises to a depression-era level of 24.5 percent. Moreover, the number of folk who haven’t had a job for six months has risen. Now, 5.4 million people, 42.8 percent of the unemployed, haven’t had a job for more than 27 weeks.

Candidate Romney, in hanging around Donald Trump and the “birther” crowd, is counting on hysteria and trivia to drive him to victory. He says President Obama doesn’t know how to create jobs, but this is the same man who says he “enjoys” firing people and who slashed employment when he was a corporate raider at Bain.

President Obama, too, must be cautioned against straying into trivial issues, when economic concerns are central. At the same time, President Obama is to be congratulated for taking a strong position on marriage equality.

Some may say that it was a long time coming, and that it might be a calculated move to influence some votes in the election, but those who are watching carefully understand that whether it helps the election or hurts it (and some African American pastors are railing against this one), this was a matter of conscience for President Obama. Unfortunately, Romney has no such conscience. He knows the birther rap is nonsense at best. Yet he stands by a birther and says nothing. His own father was the subject of birther vitriol more than 40 years ago when he ran for president, and it was revealed that he was born in Mexico.

The diversions will be dust in the wind come Election Day. People are mostly going to vote their pocketbooks and their economic changes. The news that unemployment rates are stagnant and possibly rising, is bad news for President Obama, no matter how his team spins it. And beneath the numbers, there is lots of pain that is being masked. For example, some economists say we need to generate 300,000 jobs a month just to stay even with population growth. In the first quarter of this year, an average of 226,000 jobs were created each month. But in April, just 77,000 jobs were created, and in May, just 69,000 jobs. Declines in job creation speak to shrinking opportunities for those who are not working.

While the Obama Administration has few tools to combat the current employment situation, his team now needs to go on the offensive to talk about ways more jobs can be created, and by pointing out the ways that legislative gridlock hurts those who are looking for work. Without aggressive attention to the plight of the unemployed, the Romney crew can use stagnant numbers to take the offensive on this matter. This can’t happen.

If the employment situation is stagnant now, imagine it under “cut government spending” Romney. President Obama and his team need to contrast the Romney record with his own, and make it clear that failure to stimulate the economy will lead to disaster.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer.


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