By MARSHA MERCER
You can’t blame ‘em for hoping.
With midterm elections on the horizon, Democrats have waited all year, fingers crossed, for the economy to bounce back. People might still be hurting come autumn, but favorable economic reports – at the least -- could help restore voters’ optimism and avert a Democratic train wreck Nov. 2. That was the theory.
The final economic numbers before the midterm elections are coming in, and, this won’t surprise you, the news isn’t great. The economy is still limping. It’s not about to throw down its crutches and sprint to Election Day. The jobless rate remains stuck, nudging 10 percent.
Republicans are gleeful, practically measuring for drapes in the House Speaker’s office. So what are Democrats supposed to do? President Barack Obama explained the grave situation Wednesday:
“Now when unemployment is still at 9.5, 9.6 percent, that gives an enormous advantage to whoever is not in power because they can simply point at the status quo and regardless of causation say, ‘You know what? It’s the folks who are in power that are at fault.’”
As if on cue, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, started calling Democrats “the party of food stamps” and Republicans “the party of paychecks.”
The food stamp rolls typically expand during a recession. About 32 million people received food stamps when Obama took office, and 41.8 million received them in July, according to the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service. Most people, of course, would prefer a paycheck.
Without a positive economic story to spread, Obama advised Democrats not to lose hope.
“What we have to do is to make sure that we maintain our focus on the long game,” the president counseled in New Jersey, according to news reports. His audience that night was well insulated from the anxiety of joblessless or food insecurity. Guests paid $30,400 a plate for dinner.
Democrats should not surrender control of the House and Senate because the next two years are crucial, Obama said. This is no time for Democrats to “start sulking and sitting back and not doing everything we can do to make sure our folks turn out.”
When he talked about the long game, Obama could have been referring to the 2012 election. Republicans would like nothing better than to add him to the ranks of the unemployed.
On the campaign trail, the president tries to reignite the hope of 2008, but he may feel like he’s using damp matches.
Last month, he told a Congressional Black Caucus dinner, “I need everybody here to go back to your neighborhoods, to go back to your workplaces, to go to the churches, and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops. And tell them we’ve got more work to do.”
The longest recession since World War II officially ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but a jobless recovery is a low tide that fails to lift anyone’s boat.
The stock market rally notwithstanding, most people are still holding their breath, waiting for jobs and security. Large companies have cash but reportedly are sitting on it or buying back stock to boost stock prices rather than hiring workers.
Non-farm, private employers pared 39,000 workers in September, according to the monthly ADP National Employment Report issued Wednesday, the last report before the election. Economists had expected a loss of about 20,000 jobs. Manufacturing, financial services and construction all lost jobs. The one bright spot, as usual, was the services sector.
The good news in recent reports is that things have been worse. Retail sales are up, and the number of first-time applicants for unemployment benefits dropped during the week that ended Oct. 2. The decline of 11,000 applicants was greater than economists expected -- but not enough to cheer about. Most analysts expect unemployment to inch up through the end of the year and beyond.
The National Retail Federation expects a “moderate” Christmas season – with sales up a little but seasonal employment down from last year.
And yet, Democrats can find glimmers of hope in the gloom. Vice President Joe Biden reassures audiences that reports of the death of the Democratic party have been greatly exaggerated.
And any day a Republican Senate candidate has to run a TV ad proclaiming she’s not a witch has to be a good one for Democrats.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.