Fist-Bump or Moment of Silence — How the Jobs News is Delivered

Photograph by Justin Lane/EPA

A job fair at a state office building in Brooklyn, New York.

For a jump on the nation’s monthly unemployment and payroll figures, watch who walks a brown envelope from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to the West Wing tonight.

Caveat: You probably can’t get a good view, because you don’t have a press pass (they are red) and construction has made West Executive, the street that divides the EEOB and the West Wing, look like the Erie Canal during the Monroe administration. So maybe rent a south-facing room at the Hay Adams hotel in the winter when the leaves have fallen and glass West Exec with some field binoculars.

Hint: The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers tends to deliver good news in person.

What follows is a timeline of how the two numbers in the monthly jobs report — with July’s report coming Friday morning — get gathered and then disseminated in the administration. It’s based on close to a dozen conversations with current and former administration officials. [See a video report at the end of this post.]

The unemployment rate that everyone assumes will determine Obama’s residence next year starts with 2,000 Census workers knocking on 60,000 doors, asking an uncomfortable question: Did you work last week?

Not everyone likes to participate, but Census field reps give themselves about 10 days to gather the data for what’s known as the household survey.

After knock-backs and call-backs, our friendly Census workers weight the data to adjust for non-answers. Then they transmit the data to the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the jobless rate.

For the business survey — sometimes called the establishment survey or the non-farm payroll report — the BLS doesn’t need all those eager Census workers knocking on your door. They simply send a questionnaire to 486,000 work sites. (In many cases it’s all on-line and with big businesses, it’s fairly automated). BLS wants to know how many jobs were on these payrolls on the 12th of the month.

On the Thursday afternoon before jobs day (which remember doesn’t have to be the first Friday of the month, but usually is), the BLS transmits both data sets to the Council of Economic Advisers, over what some call the bat phone. A secured system.

CEA then shares the numbers with Treasury economists and the Federal Reserve. This makes sense: If the jobs report showed that the economy was about to implode and yields on U.S. debt might look like Spanish ones, the Fed should probably have a bead on the data. Ditto Treasury.

Thursday afternoon, inside CEA, it’s tense. And secretive: No emailing the number — only hard copies.

Staff economists (not political appointees) help the chairman, currently Alan Krueger, draft a one-page data memo (sometimes one-and-a-half pages) to the president. Each chair has a slightly different style. Some make edits. Others argue over the data, but it’s the CEA who gets to frame up the numbers for the president.

When the memo is drafted Thursday evening (and you can imagine that Obama really wants to know that number), it’s decision time for the CEA chairman. Send a staffer from the EEOB to the president’s staff secretary with the memo, or deliver it in person? Call the chief of staff or the president’s scheduler and see if the president has a few minutes? He will make the time.

When he was chair and the number beat expectations, Austan Goolsbee got the ultimate Obama approval: a presidential fist bump. With his first chair, Christina Romer, Obama got even more personal when she made the point of delivering the good news in person.

On a December evening in 2009 (Dec. 3, to be precise) it would have been easy to watch Romer walk from the EEOB to the West Wing to deliver the then-good news that the economy only lost 11,000 jobs.

The next day, at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Erie, Pennsylvania, Obama shared his reaction. “I’ve got to admit my chief economist, Christy Romer, she got about four hugs when she handed us the report,” Obama said.

Thursday night, copies of the memo also go to the vice president’s office (he also has a staff secretary) and the National Economic Council. (It’s a separate post, but there’s inherent tension between the NEC and the CEA and this is one case where the CEA has a bit of a tactical advantage. The chair knows the number first and knows it better. At this point, the chair has been studying the data for a couple of hours.)

That brings to six (the Fed’s Ben Bernanke, Treasury’s Timothy Geithner, NEC’s Gene Sperling, Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama and CEA’s Alan Krueger) the number of principals who know the unemployment rate.

There are a couple of ironies here: The OMB director, the keeper of all budget numbers, doesn’t get this one.

And the White House chief of  staff, who typically knows everything, doesn’t get the memo. (How do you think Rahm Emanuel felt about that?)

Once you have the number, there’s very little for a White House (or Treasury) official to do with it, other than prepare your arguments for the next economic meeting.

But the point is, you know.

Others don’t.

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