Obama has failed on jobs

At Northwestern University last Thursday, President Obama again claimed that "[b]y every economic measure, we are better off now than when I took office." On the following day, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released September's unemployment numbers and President Obama optimistically noted that "[t]he unemployment rate fell to under six percent for the first time in more than six years." Unfortunately, on both occasions, his optimism was overstated.

Barack Obama
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Barack Obama

A recent CNBC All-America Economic survey found that just 24 percent of Americans say they are extremely or quite confident in the president's economic policies and goals, while 44 percent say they have no confidence at all in the president on the economy. The survey put Obama's support on the economy 15 percentage points lower than in August 2010, when the unemployment rate was 9.5 percent, compared with 5.9 percent today.

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What does the American public know that seems to be escaping President Obama? The reality is that our economy has been unable to create enough jobs even to keep pace with the number of people entering the employable population (those 16 years old and above who are not in an institution or serving in the military). According to the survey, the BLS uses to calculate the unemployment rate, since the president took office in January 2009, the employable population has increased by 13.7 million people. Unfortunately, the number of people employed has increased by only 4.5 million. That's 9.2 million more people than jobs. That's a serious problem.

Why, then, did the official unemployment rate decline 1.9 percentage points from 7.8 percent when the President took office to 5.9 percent in September? People dropping out of the labor force has been the primary driver reflecting the headline unemployment rate's fundamental flaw: It fails to count people as unemployed unless they have looked for work in the past month, which means that both the unemployment rate and the labor participation rate can decline because people are dropping out of the labor force rather than because they are finding jobs.

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The unemployment rate's unreliability in an era of declining labor participation is hardly a secret. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen noted in March that lower labor participation can mean that the "unemployment rate is overstating the progress in the labor market."

So, how has President Obama been doing on this economic measure? The labor participation rate has been at or below 63 percent for 11 of the past 12 months. The last time it was as low as 63 percent prior to President Obama taking office was 37 years ago in April of 1978 during the Carter administration. In September, it was 62.7 percent, an Obama administration record low. Labor participation was last as low as 62.7 percent in February of 1978, also during the Carter administration.

When the president took office the labor participation rate was 65.7 percent, 3 percentage points higher than it was in September. Had September's labor participation rate been 65.7 percent, the unemployment rate would have been 10.2 percent, or 2.4 percentage points higher than when President Obama took office. In other words, but for the decline in labor participation, the unemployment rate would today be significantly higher than it was when the president took office. That means the decline in the unemployment rate to 5.9 percent in September was solely attributable to the decline in labor participation.

The president's supporters often argue that declining labor participation is the result of baby boomers retiring rather than the president's economic policies. So, let's avoid the retirement issue and look at the labor participation rate for those ages 25 to 54, prime working age Americans.

When the president took office the labor participation rate for this group was 82.8 percent. By September of this year it had declined 2.1 percentage points to 80.7 percent. Prior to President Obama taking office, the last time labor participation for this group of Americans was below 81 percent was 1984, during the early years of the Reagan Recovery. Under President Obama, it has been below 81 percent for 8 of the last 12 months.

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When President Obama took office, the unemployment rate for 25- to 54-year-olds was 7.2 percent. By September of this year, it had declined to 5.4 percent. Sounds good. However, if the labor- participation rate had remained at 82.8 percent as it was when President Obama took office, September's unemployment rate would have been 7.3 percent. This is 0.1 of a percentage point higher than when President Obama took office, again demonstrating that the improvement in the unemployment rate for prime working age Americans was due entirely to a decline in labor participation. There simply aren't enough jobs and people are giving up the search.

While President Obama may not see this disparity between his speeches and reality, the American people do. We've reached the point where very few people are listening to the talking point, no matter how well stated. As the CNBC All-America Economic survey indicates, Americans know there aren't enough jobs for them or their children. They also know that President Obama has been in office for over five years. The Real Clear Politics average of eight recent polls shows President Obama's job approval rating on the economy at 41.4 percent. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 64 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the economy. Nor do Americans expect much progress under this president. In a recent The Economist/YouGov poll, 67 percent of those polled thought that in six months there would be fewer or the same number of jobs as there are today.

The truth is that the economy is failing to create jobs at anything like the pace that would signal a healthy labor market. Ignoring what's really going on in economy will not reverse this trend. Releasing America's entrepreneurs to do what they do best will. Our government's increasing control over the businesses and daily lives of individual Americans has stifled that entrepreneurial spirit. We need fewer empowered bureaucrats and more unbridled entrepreneurs. We've had over five years of talking points and policies based on polling rather than economics. It's time for a change.

Commentary by Andrew F. Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants Holdings. which owns Hardee's and Carl's Jr. He co-authored the book "Job Creation: How it Really Works and Why Government Doesn't Understand It." Follow him on Twitter @AndyPuzder.