Unemployment Rises to Clinton-Era Levels, Still Historically Low

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Unemployment grew to 5 percent in December, a number that politicians are using to gain support in this year's elections. Some critics, meanwhile, note that 5 percent is still a relatively low rate, historically, in an overall strong economy while other critics say it indicates a longer and deeper downturn in the economy.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) called the job growth numbers "anemic" and said that if elected president, she would do more to grow the economy.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the number of unemployed persons increased by 474,000 to 7.7 million in December, and the unemployment rate rose by 0.3 percentage points to 5 percent. A year ago, the number of unemployed persons was 6.8 million, and the jobless rate was 4.4 percent.

"They impact the aspirations, hopes, and economic securities of scores of hard-working American families," Clinton said of the numbers. "It is long past time to change the Bush-Cheney economic strategy of 'too little, too late' for all but the most privileged."

"We need a new beginning on the economy, and a president that never stops fighting to lift the jobs, wages, health care and aspirations of America's hard working families," she said in a statement last Thursday.

But John Berlau, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that while the data point to slowing growth, "we are far away from a recession."

He noted that the unemployment rate was consistently above 5 percent during the first five years of the Clinton administration.

"Although Bush's overall economic policy is far from perfect," said Berlau, "the fact that unemployment has been below 5 percent for all these years points to some degree to the positive effects of the 2003 tax cuts on dividends and capital gains."

"The best thing government can do is remove tax and regulatory impediments to growth, and not make things worse through ill-conceived intervention that could scare away business investment," he told Cybercast News Service.

Clinton, running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, charged: "This Administration continues to exalt its economy despite the fact that, under its watch, poverty has risen, 7 million more Americans have lost health care, family incomes are down, and more than 3 million manufacturing jobs have been lost. That is because the wages and jobs and health care of America's middle class are invisible to them as long as the most privileged have gained."

But Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the libertarian Cato Institute, noted that "Congress has more control over economic policy than the White House."

"I think the economy is in pretty good shape," he said. "Bush is not getting any credit for the fairly strong economic growth the last few years. He probably should be getting more credit."

In a statement, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized congressional Democrats for the rise in unemployment.

"American families are feeling the squeeze of rising costs of living from spiking gasoline and energy prices, as well as increasing costs of health care, housing, and taxes," he said. "But family budgets will only be placed at greater risk by the harmful economic policies championed by this Congress.

"At a time when American families and small businesses are struggling with financial uncertainty, this irresponsible, job-killing agenda cannot continue," said Boehner. "It's time for the majority to work with Republicans in a bipartisan way on behalf of the American people who expect it."

Edwards, however, told Cybercast News Service that the December numbers aren't that significant. "It still means 95 percent of people are employed who want to be employed. If you have a job, you don't really care what the unemployment rate is."

Edwards, nonetheless, acknowledged that the economy will be important in presidential politics.

According to recent GW Battleground Poll results, 75 percent of likely voters view the current state of the economy negatively, with 70 percent saying it is tough for middle class people to make ends meet.

Edwards noted that the economy didn't seem to be important in Iowa but will be in the presidential primaries in the Northeast and in Michigan.

A recent CNN/WMUR poll showed that New Hampshire voters, on the Republican side, thought former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would handle the economy the best if elected president (47 percent) - Iowa caucus winner Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) received 5 percent of the vote - and on the Democratic side, Clinton topped the poll with 39 percent followed by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) at 22 percent, though Obama won in Iowa.

"None of the presidential candidates - regardless of party affiliation - can run away from economics," Christian Weller, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, told Cybercast News Service.

Weller said the December numbers "just confirm the longer trend of a weakening labor market and a weakening economy. The trend has been toward a weakening labor market, higher unemployment, and lower employment creation."

He added that the economy will especially affect Republican candidates, who he said will need to develop economic policies that distance themselves from the Bush administration and the current situation.

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