Jack Tame: Obama's return hinges on US economics


It was June 2009, a first visit to the US. They were five weeks of fun, of fast food, Empire States, Golden Gates and Grand Canyons.

It was not by any means an intrepid trip; I beat the perma-beaten path of so many first-time State-siders, zipping between big cities fuelled by pretzels and hotdogs and doing my very best to spend as much money as was fiscally and physically possible.

But richer than the Disneyland cliches is an enduring memory of a more sombre American reality in the United States of June 2009. It is of a lone man standing by a highway in Washington State, facing oncoming traffic and staring out at nothing in particular.

I drove by him one day around 7am, a single car in a mass of pressing commuters. There was no footpath nor pedestrians, just a sterile highway, and a man with a sign.

"Desperate to work. Willing and able to work," it read.

I returned that night, a full 13 hours later. The evening rush had passed, the mass of cars and commuters had slowed to a steady trickle, yet the man still stood there. He'd changed sides of the road, but in the same jeans and jacket he was evidently still jobless. It was just him and his sign.

In June 2009, that sheet of cardboard was a very literal sign of the times. US unemployment was 9.5 per cent. People were desperate, and though homes were foreclosed and millions were newly jobless, Barack Obama promised a steady recovery for the biggest economy on Earth.

When comparing those figures now, to the unemployment numbers for June of this year, the level of economic recovery in the USA can appear deceptively rosy. Instead of the half-million jobs shed in the grip of the recession, 80,000 jobs were created last month. Unemployment today is at 8.2 per cent, 1.3 points lower than when the man in Washington State stood by a highway holding his sign.

But on a mid-town Manhattan footpath this week, sat another man with an expression of dishevelled resignation. He didn't ask for money, I saw no collection and I had no reason to assume an addiction. In the fleeting seconds afforded to him by the average passerby, I saw little more than his sign.

"Unemployed veteran," it read. "Wants to work. Can you help?"

If unemployment is the most accessible measure of post-recession recovery, in the United States at least, the rate of improvement is still miserably slow. And while Barack Obama undoubtedly inherited much of his nation's recessionary problems, it's tough to sell one's economic nous when there are willing workers holding cardboard signs in the streets of your biggest cities. Three-and-a-half years since he took office, the jobs gained last month do nothing more than match population growth.

It's easy to get lost in the compendium of social issues that make up a US presidential race. But four days before November's election is a key date in the campaign calendar - the final unemployment report of President Barack Obama's first term.

And to be lost in abortion laws, gay marriage and immigration, is to forget most Americans will cast their November 6 vote by a simple and overruling economic question: What candidate will make my life better, by putting more cash in my back pocket?

That 8.2 per cent might just mean the masses choose Mitt.

- Herald on Sunday

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