What a Jobs Report Memo to a President Looks like

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A ''Now Hiring'' sign is seen in a store front window in Miami Beach, Florida.

Correction: In the 8th paragraph, the estimated number of new jobs added to the economy is 130,000 in the month of August, not 110,000.

Before President Barack Obama speaks tonight, he will likely receive a memo that could predict the success of his Charlotte convention.

It will be written by Alan Krueger, but Obama might wish that his Council of Economic Advisers could just cut ‘n paste some older memos (and older numbers), written by Martin Feldstein, President Ronald Reagan’s CEA chair when he faced re-election.

Consider this first sentence from a short, sunny, memo, dated July 5, 1984. “Tomorrow’s news about unemployment is spectacular: another 0.4 percent decline bringing the overall unemployment rate to 7.0 percent in June.”

While Krueger has been the bearer of mediocre economic news all summer, Feldstein was running out of superlatives to describe job growth. From April (“very good news”) to May (“remarkably good”) to June (“spectacular”) the Feldstein memos provide an internal look at how Reagan’s senior advisers were viewing an economy on the march. And Feldstein’s glee at the improving data.

“This is the first time since the Kennedy Administration that a presidential term has seen a fall in both unemployment and inflation,” concludes his three-sentence July memo.

Those Thursday night economic numbers led to a Friday morning president eager to take credit. The next day in San Antonio, Texas, Reagan started his speech to the Texas Bar Association by noting, “Just in case that you haven’t caught the news early this morning,” and then ran through the numbers.

Sometimes Reagan’s public statements about the numbers were longer than the memos themselves.

While the Feldstein memos come from a different era (all are typewritten, include two spaces after a period, and some note that they are “by dictation”) the data sets are the same as today’s: both include the raw numbers from the Household and Establishment surveys. That gives us the unemployment rate, stuck at 8.3 percent, and the number of new jobs added to the economy, estimated to be 130,00 in the month of August.

Through the election year, Obama’s jobs numbers have been a fraction of Reagan’s. For example, the 379,000 new positions that were added in June of 1984 were six times the 64,000 created in June 2012. Reagan’s worst month of 275,000 (March) is the same as Obama’s best (January).

What we won’t learn until the Obama archives open is just how technical and objective the memos from Krueger (and his two predecessors) are by comparison.

At times, Feldstein can’t contain his excitement. “I am writing this memo from Paris where I have been attending the OECD meetings,” he closes his May 3, 1984 note. “Our employment improvement is the envy of Europe.”

The next month he played communications director. “The news is remarkably good and will be a very timely addition to the message that you will bring to London,” he wrote May 31.

Even though Obama will “probably” receive the memo before he delivers his acceptance speech tonight, Obama is unlikely to betray anything about them, said Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s last CEA chair.

“My experience is that the president is extremely good at not tipping his hand about what’s in the numbers,” he said in a Bloomberg TV interview yesterday. “So anybody who’s going to be looking at his speech trying to figure out what’s in them, I would say is probably going to be disappointed.”

Michael Callahan contributed to this post

 

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