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Close Read: Obama's Speech And The Jobs Numbers


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Hours after President Obama delivered his speech at the Democratic convention, the latest unemployment report provided a reminder of what's at stake. The unemployment rate dropped in August - which sounds good, but the number of jobs created was below expectations for August.

MONTAGNE: We're going to talk through the numbers - and also, the president's speech - with some of our correspondents. NPR's Yuki Noguchi covers business; Julie Rovner covers health-care policy; and Ari Shapiro has been covering Mr. Mitt Romney's campaign. Good morning to you all.



INSKEEP: And Yuki Noguchi...

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: ...let's start with you. What were the numbers here?

NOGUCHI: Well, in August, 96,000 net new jobs were created. And the unemployment rate fell from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent. Now, that rate makes it sound good. But in fact, what happened was that the labor force - that's the number of people working, or looking for work - decreased. So it doesn't actually mean that the economy is better. In fact, the previous two months, it turns out, created fewer jobs than previously reported.

INSKEEP: We're talking about net - hundreds of thousands of people who gave up looking for work, or made decisions in their lives...

NOGUCHI: Or retired, or went back to school - right. But overall, I will say that even though we're talking about tens of thousands of jobs - you know, it being off by tens of thousands of jobs - in the context of millions, it's really - it doesn't really change the overall story, which is basically that the economy is still grinding it out in a low gear.

INSKEEP: Growing, but slow growth.

NOGUCHI: Slow, exactly.

MONTAGNE: Now, let's turn now to Ari Shapiro. Might want to say, he's on the road - he's in Iowa. So there's a little delay in our communication here. So don't anybody - for listeners, you should - you'll hear a little pause. But Ari, you've been - you've been covering the Romney campaign. And I understand the Republican nominee jumped on these jobs numbers this morning.

SHAPIRO: That's right. Romney is flying out here to Iowa. And as we speak, he put out a statement before he left New Hampshire this morning, saying if last night was the party, this morning is the hangover. For every net new job created, he said, nearly four Americans gave up looking for work entirely. That's a theme you're going to hear him hitting on the stump today. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "Time is up, Mr. President; more of the same is not good enough. This isn't an incomplete, it's an F" - referring to the grade of incomplete that President Obama gave himself for the first four years.

This is in keeping with the argument Republicans have been making throughout this campaign; that the Repub - that the president had his chance to get the economy right. Given that the economy is not fully recovered at this point, it's time to hand over the reins to someone else, they say.

INSKEEP: Now, I guess we should remember, this is just one monthly jobs report, for better or for worse, but it was - the timing was so significant because it came right after the president's speech. If it had been good, it would have been seen as a big deal. It's not seen as so good. Did the president, Ari, know what the number was when he spoke last night?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, he did. Actually, the Bureau of Labor Statistics - the day before these numbers come out, the bureau always sends an encrypted message with the raw figures, to the President's Council of Economic Advisers. And then the chairman of that council, along with some of his economists, will draft a one- or two-page memo to explain the data to the president, to the director of his National Economic Council, and to the vice president. Of course it's possible that President Obama was, you know, superstitious; didn't want to be thrown off his game for the speech and said no, don't show me the memo until I've given the speech. But if things went the way they usually do then yes, he knew that this was not going to be a great jobs report before he came out on that speech last night, and gave what some have described -

INSKEEP: Well, we're lost Ari there.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, we've lost Ari.

INSKEEP: What some have described as a little bit flatter speech than President Clinton's speech the night before.

MONTAGNE: And also - also, a little bit more negative - I mean, like warning that, you know, times might be hard. He knew this jobs report was coming out...

INSKEEP: OK, so let's take a close read now, of some of the president's statements last night. We're going to get at some of the facts, and intended messages behind the words. And the president did speak of jobs when he listed some goals last night.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Goals in manufacturing, energy, education, national security, and the deficit. Real, achievable plans that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity; and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation.

MONTAGNE: And we've got Ari back with us, so let's just - well, we may ask Ari about this. He said specifically - the president, last night - that he would create 1 million manufacturing jobs in the next four years. So Yuki Noguchi, you're with us. Can he realistically promise that?

NOGUCHI: Well, you know, last month was not a great indication in that way. There were 15,000 manufacturing jobs lost. So that puts them further away from their goal. It turns that auto manufacturers rehired fewer workers in August after their - you know, retooling in July. So overall, manufacturing - like the rest of the economy - is sort of coming back slowly. So, you know - but then, of course, so many jobs - manufacturing jobs were lost in the recession. So we're only really a quarter back - a quarter of the way back to par.

So things, obviously, need to improve in order for the president to meet his goal. And in order for that to happen, the economy needs to, you know, continue to recover, and Europe can't melt down. So it's worth noting, also, that - you know, the technical know-how of these new manufacturing jobs is going to require a lot of retooling of old skills.

INSKEEP: Ari Shapiro, very briefly, does this underline a big difference between the parties, at least rhetorically - because the president talks of focusing on manufacturing, on specific kinds of manufacturing like solar; and the Republicans will describe that as picking winners.

SHAPIRO: Right. Well, the president has talked about building a new economic base for the future, building an American economy on something that will last. The Republicans - as you say - say, it's not up to us to choose winners and losers; to which President Obama responds, well, we're giving tax breaks to oil and gas companies that are doing better than ever. In a way, that - in itself - is picking winners and losers. The government is always involved in the private sector. It's just a question of, in what way we get involved.

It goes to the base argument; that Democrats say government is not inherently bad. Government is not the solution to every problem, but government's not the problem, either. Republicans respond that the smaller government can be, the more it can get out of the way, the better off everyone will be.

INSKEEP: OK. Now, last week - let's bring in Julie Rovner now. Julie, you spoke of Mitt Romney base-touching - making quick references to life, and other issues of passionate interest to conservatives. And with that in mind, let's listen to a little bit more of President Obama's speech last night.


OBAMA: If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void - the lobbyists and special interests, the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election, and those who are trying to make it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health-care choices that women should be making for themselves.

INSKEEP: Julie Rovner, what do you hear in there?

ROVNER: The exact, mirror image of what Mitt Romney did last week. We had a convention with the Democrats that played hard to the base, featuring speeches by prominent abortion rights advocates in prime time - which we haven't seen for a while. And remember, the president has changed his position on gay marriage from four years ago. But what we saw in the speech was just this sort of acknowledgement - just as I said last week, about Mitt Romney - this kind of base-touching.

MONTAGNE: And the president also claimed this achievement - to change the subject here. Let's hear another clip.


OBAMA: In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by 1 million barrels a day, more than any administration in recent history,


OBAMA: And today, the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades.

MONTAGNE: He then promised to cut oil imports in half by 2020. Ari Shapiro, what is his record here, and is that goal achievable?

SHAPIRO: Well, Renee, U.S. dependence on foreign oil has been falling - and was falling before this president took office, going all the way back to 2005. The trend accelerated on his watch, so last year we imported about 45 percent of our oil, which is (technical difficulties) demand for oil. But there was also a jump in domestic production.

The oil industry says that happened despite - not because of - the president's policies. He can claim credit for increased efficiency, which will reduce reliance on foreign oil. For the cut in oil imports that he referred to - looking ahead - the Obama campaign says the starting line that they are using is when this president came into office - just so you know. So we're not talking about from today.

INSKEEP: Ari, just very briefly, the president also said he had a deficit-reduction plan that according to independent analysts, would cut the debt by 4 trillion over the next number of years. True?

SHAPIRO: Yes, some analysts say that. Other analysts say he's factoring in a trillion in savings from wars that were not paid for in the first place. So they say it's a bit of a gimmick.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Ari Shapiro, as well as NPR's Yuki Noguchi and NPR's Julie Rovner. Thanks to all of you.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue to have more analysis of the president's speech - as well as the latest unemployment numbers - as we continue throughout the day, right here on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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