When you accumulate some of the adjectives from the pundits, the media, and other appraisals that were not from the right but from baffled sympathizers and centrists, there is no doubt that President Barack Obama clearly lost the debate this week, as a matter of both substance and tone. Take your pick from the river of insults: listless, meandering, lazy, dull-brained, long-winded, languid, and flaccid were just some of the epithets from the pundits. Even the New York Times opined that "He lost his competitive edge." The worst that Mitt Romney's relatively few critics could come up with was that his tax cut was unaffordable.
All Obama could do was repeat the charge, and Romney was able to make the pledge that he would not reduce revenues through his tax cut because they would be offset by the elimination of special write-offs and loopholes. What was remarkable was that Romney, who has been in everyone's dog house for months with an erratic campaign, has suddenly assumed the stature of a president. He was warm, articulate, logical, informed, forceful, and most important, presidential. He was more engaged, more detailed, more decisive, more animated, more aggressive in attack, and more robust in defense than the president, who was lackadaisical and without mastery of the facts or the ability to respond to what was put forth by his challenger.
But what is at issue isn't debating style, questions of posture and demeanor, "gotcha moments," or "You're no Jack Kennedy" zingers. The fundamental issue for America is that we seem to have lost our way and we haven't found it after four years of the Obama administration, thanks to a leadership so lacking that the American dream now seems to be a chimera of nostalgia. The president appears to have lost his intellectual interest.
It is all very well to raise a sword and cry "Forward!" but to what? Campaigning and barnstorming, at which Obama is very good, is no substitute for brainstorming to evolve a cohesive set of plans to deal with the current crisis. Yes, he inherited a financial crisis that he had no part in causing. But after the most stimulative fiscal and monetary program in the country's history—he racked up almost $5 trillion in deficits in four years, which had previously taken us 205 years to accumulate—we have had at least a retreat from the edge of the cliff with some emergence of occasional green shoots in the desert.
Still, roughly 60 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. The negatives remain grim and glaringly so on jobs, jobs, jobs and income. As for jobs, some 25 million Americans are without full-time work. Over 5 million have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. The share of the unemployed who have been out of work for a year or more has soared from 12 percent three years ago to over 30 percent today. The share of the population actually in the labor force has shrunk to a post-World War II low. Almost 8.5 million people have given up looking for a job, so they are not counted in the unemployment rate because they have not searched for work in the prior month.
The real unemployment rate is 15 percent, measured by what is called U-6, which includes people who are working part-time on an involuntary basis. We have 4.7 million fewer jobs than the peak reached at the end of 2007. And indeed much of the improvement in jobs has been through dubious "seasonal" adjustments, such as the July seasonal bump of 377,000 jobs—the largest such adjustment for July in the past 10 years. The labor participation rate has dropped to a 30-year low, and if not for that development, the unemployment rate would be much higher.
Fewer Americans are at work today than in April 2000, although the population has grown by 31 million since then. A worker between the ages of 50 and 61 who has been unemployed for over a year has only a 9 percent chance of finding a job in the next three months. A worker who is 62 years or older and similarly unemployed has about a 6 percent chance. And 50 percent of this year's college graduates are without jobs or are underemployed. What a waste.
It used to be that you were in the labor force if you had been looking for work some time in the last four years, but that was changed to one year in the later Clinton years. If we use that older and more reasonable standard, the unemployment rate would be at least more than one percentage point higher.