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Will more jobs make voters less desperate for change?

Ford manufacturing
Rebecca Cook | Reuters

The American jobs machine kept cranking in December, adding 292,000 jobs and boosting Democratic hopes of running in a strong economy this year. The unemployment rate stayed at 5 percent as the size of the entire labor force grew by nearly 500,000 last month, another positive sign for the economy.

The news was not all great as wages were flat. But wage growth is now at 2.5 percent for the year, not a great number but not terrible either. Presumably, as the nation races toward full employment, wage growth will pick up and American attitudes toward the economy will rise with it.

That would be very good news for likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who is counting on good feelings about the economy helping her succeed President Barack Obama. And it complicates the argument for Republicans counting on widespread dissatisfaction with the economy to help them win the White House.

The strong jobs report is especially difficult for candidates like Donald Trump whose appeal is based in large part on frustration among white, working class voters angered by stagnant wages and tepid growth. Trump last year claimed the "real" unemployment rate is closer to 42 percent. In fact, the so-called "U6" rate that takes into account frustrated job seekers and the underemployed is now at 9.9 percent, still elevated but not that far above historical norms.

Despite the incredibly consistent job creation numbers (200,000 per month on average for nearly four years), Clinton and the Democrats still have a fairly large hill to climb on the economy. The lack of wage gains and sluggish overall growth still have many Americans feeling like the nation remains in recession.

In December, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that over 70 percent of Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track. That figure reflects not just economic worries but also threats from terrorism in the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

It's no surprise that the economy has faded somewhat from the GOP race in favor of stark warnings from candidates about terrorism and pledges to crack down hard on Muslim immigration while "destroying" ISIS in the Middle East.

Because if Republicans cannot convince Americans that the economy is terrible, their best line of attack on Democrats is that the nation is not safe from terror attacks and a much different and tougher approach is needed. With no sign of a slowing in job growth, Clinton is much more vulnerable to fresh terror attacks and Middle East unrest than she is a softening economy.


But there is also no guarantee that the economic picture will remain bright. The recent massive sell-offs in China have driven U.S. stock prices lower and raised fears of a global slowdown in 2016 as the Chinese struggle to shift their economy to a more consumption-driven model. Plunging oil prices, while offering Americans cheap gas, have also hit the energy sector hard.

And then there is the Federal Reserve, which following the strong jobs report appears set to continue its campaign of quarter-point rate hikes with the next likely bump coming in March. The continuing fear among Democrats is that while the Fed is not likely to spark recession with these very small hikes, it could put a lid on job growth before wages gain any significant upward traction. If that happens, the right track/wrong track figures on the economy are not likely to improve very much, making Clinton's argument for more of the same on the economic policy front significantly tougher to make.

But all the caveats aside, Clinton's campaign staff likely cheered the December jobs report, and with good reason. At the current pace, the unemployment rate should be headed well below 4 percent by Election Day, levels not seen since 2007. Americans may still not feel great about this sluggish recovery. But they are not likely to be desperate for change, either.


—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.