For the first time in more than a quarter-century, unemployment in the United States has reached double digits - bad economic news for America, now having shed jobs for 22 consecutive months. And bad social news for the Americans who are out of work, for their families and for their communities, especially when we consider data that tells us 35 percent of jobless men and women have been looking for work for more than six months.
It's bad political news for President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress, who continue to make the mistake of treating unemployment as an afterthought rather than the most serious issue facing the nation. Now that the United States has an official double-digit unemployment rate, the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate need to begin to make job creation their primary focus.
Not since 1983, when Ronald Reagan was in his first term, has the jobless rate gone over 10 percent. And unemployment is rising faster than Obama aides, key members of Congress or top economists anticipated. Many had held out hope that the rate would be slowed sufficiently to keep the official figure in single digits, avoiding the psychological wallop of a headline saying, "one in 10 Americans are out of work."
For the month of October, however, official unemployment stands at 10.2 percent. And that figure does not include millions of Americans who have given up looking for work in the midst of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Millions more are underemployed. When we factor those numbers, the real unemployment rate is closer to 17.5 percent.
When the federal government acknowledges the "one-in-10" reality, people start to get scared, and rightly so. As unemployment rises, even those who are employed start to fret. The fretting can have a serious impact on the economy. It can also have a serious impact on politics.
In New Jersey, a state that Barack Obama won easily in 2008, Democrats lost the governorship in 2009. What was the top issue, according to exit polls? Jobs and the economy. Thirty-one percent of voters ranked the issue as the most pressing, compared with just 18 percent who cited health care.
In Virginia, another state Mr. Obama won easily in 2008, the Democratic nominee for governor lost in a landslide. Eighty-three percent of voters told exit pollsters they were worried about "jobs and the economy."
Roughly half of voters said it was their top concern, while barely half pointed to health care.
This does not mean that the president and his congressional allies should abandon the push for health care reform. Health care reform is essential to economic progress: America cannot continue to steer more and more of its GDP into the accounts of profiteering insurance companies and expect to experience meaningful growth in employment or prosperity.
But a singular or even dominant focus on health care - or any project other than job creation and retention - is now politically dangerous. Concerns about the economy powered Democratic advances in 2006 and 2008. Indeed, the top issue that correlated with Democratic wins in House and Senate races was not the war in Iraq, health care, social policy or generalized anger with George W. Bush. It was opposition to free-trade policies that are now broadly blamed for shuttering factories and outsourcing jobs.
If unemployment continues to rise, it will be the only issue in key congressional districts and states across the country next year. Nothing else that the president or his congressional allies talk about will matter.
Democrats need to remake themselves as the party of jobs. If this requires a new stimulus plan with more money for job-creating infrastructure and development programs, Democrats cannot afford to be cautious. If this requires a radical alteration in trade policies and the abandonment of the absurd strategy for bailing out GM and Chrysler - which calls for shuttering more than two dozen plants across the United States - Democrats cannot afford to hesitate.
If Mr. Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and their compatriots listen to the counsel of the cautious, as unemployment hits 12, 13 or 14 percent, they will fail the American people doubly. The first failure will be a social one. If unemployment is allowed to rise into the mid-teens, families and communities across this country will experience a human crisis of daunting proportions.
The second failure will be a political one. Democrats stuck defending an indefensible status quo is a guaranteed loser for Mr. Obama and his congressional allies.
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. This article, Copyright 2009 by The Nation, is distributed by Agence Global.