In polls of likely voters — which do not yet comprise the majority of publicly available surveys — Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are neck-and-neck. Why is the incumbent president in trouble, despite some significant political assets? I know everyone has a pet theory to explain it, but I think the explanation is best captured by a series of numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The official unemployment rate, tracked monthly, is called the U-3 rate. It takes the number of individuals actively looking for work but jobless, and divides by the total civilian workforce. This is certainly a valuable gauge of the clearance rate of the labor market — the extent to which buyers and sellers of labor are making deals that benefit both parties — but it isn’t the only one. BLS actually calculates six different measures of labor utilization, with U-1 and U-2 approaching the task more narrowly than U-3 and the remainder approaching it more broadly.
The broadest one, U-6, uses a numerator of individuals looking for work, plus discouraged individuals who have stopped looking, plus other “marginally attached workers” (those who have left the labor market for a time for personal or educational reasons), plus individuals who are working part-time but seek full-time jobs. It then divides by the civilian workforce plus all those marginally attached workers. BLS doesn’t publish U-6 on a monthly basis, but it does publish annual averages. Here’s what the national U-6 rates look like in recent years:
2007 — 8.3 percent
2008 — 10.5 percent
2009 — 16.2 percent
2010 — 16.7 percent
2011 — 15.9 percent
The latest U-6 average from BLS is from the second quarter of 2011 through the first quarter of 2012. It was 15.6 percent. Perhaps it will drop to 15 percent or even a bit lower by Election Day 2012. That will still leave the rate much, much higher than in 2008. But according to the latest White House spin, voters will be persuaded to stick with the current economic strategy.
By what? The Obama team will have to change the subject (difficult) or slime Romney (underway).