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09.13.11

White House’s Job-Creation Dodge

The White House got stung by predicting the number of jobs the first Obama stimulus plan would create. This time, cautious officials aren’t risking any guesses.

Reporters want to know: how many jobs will President Obama’s new jobs bill create? The White House surely has some guesstimates, but nobody there is saying. The president’s team learned its lesson in 2009 after Christine Romer, then the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, and economist Jared Bernstein, who was advising Vice President Biden, predicted that Obama’s first stimulus bill, if passed, would keep unemployment from rising above 8 percent.

Those soundbites captured on video have been used by Republicans to bolster their case that Obama’s economic policies have failed. Despite the hundreds of billions spent, the unemployment rate remains stuck at 9.1 percent. With the election season heating up, and Obama pressing for a new round of spending to create jobs, the White House is not going to get caught again with a prediction that turns out to be off the mark.

Briefing reporters before the president’s speech on Thursday, an administration official rebuffed the media clamor for a ballpark estimate on job creation, declaring, “We’re just not going to get caught in that trap.”

The blackout remained in effect Monday, when Budget Director Jack Lew appeared in the White House Briefing Room to discuss the “pay-fors” in the jobs package Obama is sending to Congress. Limits on itemized deductions for high-end earners, stripping special preferences for oil and gas interests and corporate-jet owners, are designed to offset the additional spending Obama wants.

Obama will be held accountable for the economy whatever the numbers; he’s just not going to provide chapter and verse this time.

When asked how many jobs will be created, Lew danced around the question, only to finally say, “Well, we just don’t do official job estimates.”

He referred the media to the numbers put out Friday by Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics (1.9 million jobs), and another somewhat lower estimate from Macroeconomic Advisers.

“I think the American people don’t want us to be standing here kind of arguing over estimates, but getting the job done to create jobs,” he said. Lew even declined an opportunity to endorse Zandi’s numbers by saying they are on target, evidence of how skittish the White House is about getting stung again by overpromising.

Briefing reporters after Lew exited the room, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney sounded a bit churlish as he lectured the media about routinely accepting the characterization of Romer and Bernstein as administration economists who got it wrong. He urged “people who are journalists to at least acknowledge in their writing, if not in the phrasing of their question … that the forecasts made in early 2009 were based on the economic data available to any economist inside or outside the administration.”

The White House has a case that the economic data that officials were working with then turned out to be far worse than they knew at the time. In the last quarter of 2008, before Obama took office, the U.S. economy contracted 9 percent—and in January 2009, with Obama newly inaugurated, 770,000 jobs were shed that month alone, part of the overall total of 8 million jobs lost. “So, at least as a reporter, acknowledge that there’s a separation between a talking point and the facts on the ground at the time,” Carney implored.

Arguing facts once a perception has taken hold is probably a lost cause. “They ought to take a mulligan on that one, say they were wrong, and move on,” says Matt Bennett of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group.

Forecasting is as much art as science, and every time Obama has tried to “pivot” to jobs, he’s been thwarted. The BP oil spill, the Japanese tsunami, and the woes of Europe have all conspired to stall the U.S. economy. Obama will be held accountable for the economy whatever the numbers; he’s just not going to provide chapter and verse this time.