CHICAGO - JUNE 04: Job seekers wait in line for a job fair June 4, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. The number of people collecting unemployment insurance dropped slightly for the first time in 20 weeks. The number of new jobless claims also fell. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The president’s chief economic adviser warned Friday that the nation’s unemployment rate could stay “unacceptably high” for years to come — a situation that would seriously complicate Barack Obama’s ability to convince Americans that he’s beating back the recession.
“The level of unemployment is unacceptably high,” National Economic Council Director Larry Summers said Friday. “And will, by all forecasts, remain unacceptably high for a number of years.”
Summers’ comments came in a briefing with reporters ahead of Obama’s speech in New York City on Monday, marking the one-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, an event widely regarded as having created a panic that caused the global economic meltdown.
Even with his gloomy forecast for unemployment, Summers said the economy is getting better and made the case that Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package and other fiscal rescue steps headed off even more economic pain.
“We are making a clear transition from rescue as a priority of public policy to sustained recovery,” Summers said. “We have moved back from the brink of financial catastrophe.”
“Today, the question is, when will the recession phase end?” Summers said. He said the forecast is “for economic growth at a significant rate during the second half of 2009.”
But as is usually the case in economic recovery, job creation continues to lag. The national unemployment rate is at 9.7 percent, a 26-year high, and Obama has repeatedly said he ultimately expects it to hit double-digits before beginning to fall again.
The economy lost 216,000 jobs in the month of August, which was fewer than the July number of 276,000. Overall, 6.9 million jobs have been lost in the recession, which economists call the worst since the Great Depression.
With his remarks about sustained high unemployment, Summers touched on one of the most sensitive issues in the economy, closely watched by average Americans as a key reading of the nation’s economic health.
Unemployment is probably the single most important statistic for Democrats eyeing the mid-term Congressional elections next fall. If the unemployment rate begins to decline, the White House may have an easier time convincing voters that its enormous stimulus spending and massive federal intervention into the economy were effective. But if all the White House’s enormous efforts are unable to move the needle on unemployment, a so-called “jobless recovery” could seriously hamper the president’s party in the mid-terms.
White House spokesman Matthew Vogel said, "The President and the economic team are committed to tackling unemployment and are focused every single day on getting Americans back to work. Many economic indicators have turned positive, but employment is a lagging indicator and obviously the toughest nut to crack. We are confident that we are headed in the right direction, but that there's no room for complacency even as we see a return to growth later this year."
At the briefing, Summers walked a fine line between taking credit for the economic turnaround and declaring premature victory over the crisis.
“These problems were not made in a week or a month or a year,” Summers said. “They are not going to be fixed in a week or a month or a year.”
And he used the opportunity to make a pitch for the passage of financial regulatory reform – a key theme of Obama’s address Monday at Federal Hall near Wall Street. The administration’s proposals to change the rules of the road on Wall Street have been languishing on Capitol Hill. “We believe that this is the year, after what has happened, to overhaul financial regulation,” Summers said.
Earlier in the week, the White House said its research indicated the $787-billion economic stimulus bill passed earlier this year had saved or created 1 million jobs so far. That’s on pace, officials said, to hit the president’s goal of saving or creating 3.5 million jobs by the time the program ends in 2010.
And on Friday, the White House put out a raft of statistics to emphasize its point that the economy is responding to the forceful efforts of the Obama team.
The so-called Wall Street “fear index” is down by 58 percent since Inauguration Day; the S&P 500 is up 30 percent; and the LIBOR-OIS spread, which is widely seen as a measure of stress in the credit markets, is down 87 percent.
Looking back to global economic history, Summers said, “I’m not aware of any case in which so profound a crisis was addressed so forcefully and quickly.”
Summers also offered his thoughts on the TARP corporate bailout program, which has turned a profit on the amounts of money that have been repaid by large banks so far. But he said it wouldn’t be “reasonable” to expect that the entire program could turn a profit, because much of the money has been spent on inherently money losing efforts.