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Will Job Numbers Add Up To Votes For Obama?


We've been hearing the latest employment numbers show things moving in a positive direction, but the economy and jobs market are still weak. That's, of course, a major factor in an election year. Our friend from the business world, Joe Nocera, joins us. He's an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. Joe, thanks for being with us.

JOE NOCERA: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: As we heard, of course, the economy added more jobs in February than economists had expected. Is this a trend or true stability?

NOCERA: Well, it's certainly starting to look like a trend. It's been three months in a row and if the country stayed on this pace for the rest of the year, they'd create more than 2 million jobs, which would take us back into, really, 2005, 2004 territory. Having said that, of course, you don't know if that is going to continue. And, as always, there are things to worry about. You know, price of oil and, you know, the euro crisis hovers, and so on and so forth. So yeah, I mean, I think it's a very encouraging sign. The last three months have been good and the question is, can it be sustained?

SIMON: Of course, political wisdom says President Obama's political fortunes are going to be tied to the economy. Elections are often tied to the economy. How do these numbers, and those to come, affect that argument - and the argument that the president's opponents may make about handling the economy?

NOCERA: Well, it certainly causes the president's opponents to dance a tricky, little dance. I mean, you just can't say well, things are better but Obama is still at fault - although they'll try. So each guy has taken a separate tactic. You know, Newt Gingrich is really pushing the price-of-oil-issue; you know, oil prices are going up, gas at the pump is going up, therefore, you know, it's Obama's fault.

You know, Rick Santorum - basically saying everything good that's happening in the economy is happening despite the president, not because of the president. And Mitt Romney, you know, his basic position, which is, essentially - you know, you can't argue with it - 8.3 percent is still too high. It is too high. The problem for Mitt Romney is that if we continue to have this kind of job growth, it will not be 8.3 percent by November. It'll be significantly lower.

SIMON: What - as you hear the campaign, what would Mr. Romney do differently?

NOCERA: Well, the main thing - his main point of distinction from the president's policies have to do with taxes. It's a very - sort of Republican tax policy that he has set out, where, you know, he's going to reduce marginal tax rates; he's going to - he's actually going to eliminate capital gains tax for anybody who makes under $200,000; he wants to lower the corporate tax; and so on and so forth. So it's a classic Republican argument, that lower taxes will lead to higher economic growth. You know, the president wants to, you know, tax millionaires at a higher rate, and he wants to fiddle with the tax code in ways that he believes will promote economic growth. But he is not an across-the-board tax cutter.

SIMON: But as you point out, an 8 percent unemployment rate - that's high, and that's an element of instability in an election, isn't it?

NOCERA: Well, absolutely. As we get closer to November, we'll have a better feel for where we are in the economy. If things stay at this level, it definitely helps the Republicans. If things really - if you really see signs of progress, it's going to make Mr. Obama very, very hard to beat.

SIMON: Any signs of bipartisan cooperation for sound economic policies over the next few months?

NOCERA: Well, Scott Horsley mentioned this - sort of minor jobs bill that passed the House the other day, and it was actually astounding. It passed by, you know, like a 300 to, you know, 30 margin. It really - quite astounding. Democrats - a very bipartisan - it's a bill that would help small businesses. So, you know, if the Senate passes that, that would be an example of a small, bipartisan effort. They're not going to do anything on the big stuff. They need to keep arguing because that's what they do. But on small areas, you know, I thought that was a sign of hope.

SIMON: New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, speaking with us from Long Island. Thanks so much.

NOCERA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.