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What April's Jobless Rate Means For The Candidates


This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

There was a mixed report from the Labor Department this morning. U.S. employers are still adding jobs - 115,000 last month - but that is fewer than many forecasters were expecting, and fewer jobs than were added the month before. The unemployment rate ticked down, but only because half a million Americans left the labor force. The monthly jobs report is closely watched as both an economic and political indicator so we thought we'd have team coverage. Joining us to talk about the numbers, NPR economic correspondent Chris Arnold and White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Gentleman, welcome.


CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Thanks. Good morning.

GREENE: Chris, let me start with you on the economic side here. A lot of forecasters were expecting something in the range of 160,000 jobs added in the month. What happened?

ARNOLD: Well, we didn't get 160, we got 115,000. So, no matter how you look at it, that's disappointing. And the story behind that is that, look, the economy is adding jobs more slowly than it was a few months ago. We were well above 200,000 jobs a month - a few months ago. And across the board, now, we're seeing less growth. Nothing's really falling off a cliff, there wasn't any sector that had a ton of job losses. Manufacturing gained 16,000 jobs, retailers added 29,000 jobs. It's just slower growth. And we should say, also too, here, that this number's always preliminary. And one economist I was talking to about this the other day was saying, look, this Friday jobs report - he calls it Freaky Friday because so much attention gets paid to this one, latest monthly number, but that number often gets revised. So we might be here next month, saying, oh, it wasn't 115, it was something else.

GREENE: Let me ask you about that - that unemployment number. It ticks down a bit, but - but it's not necessarily suggesting things are getting better.

ARNOLD: That's right. The unemployment rate fell from 8.2 to 8.1 percent, but that's a percentage that involves how many people are actually out in the labor force and looking for work. So, without getting into higher math, there's just fewer people looking for work, that that's going to bring that number down - the unemployment rate down, even though it's not tremendously great news for the economy.

GREENE: Well, Scott Horsley, you're covering this at the White House - you know, whether this unemployment rate, falling to 8.1 percent is good economic news or not. It is the lowest number since January 2009. Is this good political news for - for the president in election season?

HORSLEY: Well, I'm sure the Obama campaign would've liked to have seen a stronger jobs report, especially today. They're set to have their first two reelection campaign rallies tomorrow and they would've liked to go in with a little bit more momentum. But look, you have to keep in mind, the president's going to be campaigning tomorrow in Ohio, where the jobless rate has fallen to seven and a half percent. He's going to campaign in Virginia where unemployment is just over five and a half percent. A lot of the swing states that are going to determine the outcome of the November election, actually have a stronger economy than the nation as a whole. In Iowa, New Hampshire, unemployment's just over five percent. That helps the president. On the other hand, in Nevada and Florida, the jobless rate's a lot higher - that's a big opening for Mitt Romney.

GREENE: And Scott, often the message from the White House, you know, as Chris said, there's so much attention played - paid to these numbers, that the White House often says, you know, use some caution here, they don't want to make too much out of any one month's numbers.

HORSLEY: They do say that. But, there aren't that many months left between now and the November election. And really, these are the months that count. The next three, four months are when people's attitudes about the economy are really going to start to solidify. And, you know, it's - it's a mixed bag out there. There are different ways you can spin this report. The president is going to argue, look, the gains are not as fast as we'd like, but we are showing steady improvement. Remember where we were when he first came into office? On the other hand, Mitt Romney will be arguing we should be doing a whole lot better.

GREENE: And, Chris Arnold, let me ask you, because it's very easy for Americans to just have their heads spinning from all these different numbers that we get each month. I mean, give us, sort of, a broader picture, is the economy moving in the right direction.

ARNOLD: Well, Warren Buffett was asked about this just after these numbers came in. And he would say, look, the economy is better than it was three or four months ago. That is one way to look at this. It's just not a lot better, he said. So, you look at this latest report, it has to be a little discouraging. Although, we should also add, these numbers get revised, like we were talking about before. And we look at the past two prior months, we gained 53,000 more jobs than we thought that we had. So, we could be sitting here next month looking back at this particularly weak number, saying hey, it was better than we thought. So, you know, overall we're moving in the right direction, we're just moving there slower than we want to be.

GREENE: NPR's Chris Arnold joined us from Boston. NPR's Scott Horsley speaking to us from the White House. Gus, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, David.

ARNOLD: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.