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The Economic Reports on Which the Fate of Obama’s Presidency Rests

Some time ago, I suggested that the 2012 election would hinge on three variables: the identity of the Republican nominee, the thrust of the Obama campaign’s reelection strategy, and the progress of the economy. While the first two have come into focus, the third presents a puzzle, because recent economic reports are not consistent with the forecasts for 2012. This is an analytical distinction that makes a political difference: If the forecasts are right, history suggests that the president’s reelection prospects are dicey at best. But if recent economic progress is sustained through the remainder of 2012, he’s an odds-on favorite to win a second term.

The January 2012 employment report highlighted this contradiction. Just last week, the Federal Reserve Board lowered its estimate of real GDP growth for 2012 to a range of 2.2 to 2.7 percent, and it raised its estimate of unemployment to a range of 8.2 to 8.5 percent. But according to the January BLS report, the economy generated 243,000 jobs last month alone, lowering the official unemployment rate to 8.3 percent.

A single month can be an aberration, of course. But the pace of job generation over the past few months is not consistent with the tepid growth the Fed is predicting. If the Fed turns out to be right, monthly job growth should fall below 150,000 and stay there, and unemployment will be no lower at the end of the year than it is today.

From one perspective, it’s not hard to understand the trend. As often happens, productivity rose sharply as soon as the Great Recession bottomed out—from 0.6 percent in 2008 to 2.3 percent in 2009 and 4.1 percent in 2010. But in the year just ended, productivity fell sharply, to only 0.7 percent. At that pace, even modest growth will generate substantial increases in total hours worked and net job creation. Still, productivity would have to fall even farther for the recent pace of employment growth to be sustained—that it, unless the Fed, the IMF, and the OECD are all too pessimistic about the next twelve months.

There’s something else going on: The labor force participation rate, which stood at 66.2 percent as the recession began four years ago, has declined by two and one half percentage points, to only 63.7 percent in the most recent report. If Americans were still working or looking for work at the rate of four years ago, 6 million more would be in the labor force, and unemployment would be much higher. Even a year ago, the rate was a point higher, suggesting that today’s labor force is about 750 thousand persons smaller than it would be if last year’s modest participation rate had remained unchanged.

Politically, though, these analytical details probably don’t make much difference. If the labor market continues to move forward at anything close to last month’s pace, the fourth quarter of 2011 may go down as the key inflection point of Obama’s presidency. If the Fed is right—if headwinds from housing, high debt, a weakened Europe, and slowdowns in the developing world restrain U.S. growth—it will turn out to be yet another false dawn. Either way, if the time you can devote to political news between now and November is limited, focus more on economic reports than on public opinion surveys.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The New Republic.