By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Ohio's unemployment rate declined to 5.6 percent in May, from 5.8 percent in April, according to figures released Friday.
But this is an election year, so whether there's good news or bad news behind those numbers is a subject of some debate.
"Ohio and America's economies are still hollowing out. In the first quarter of this year, we had the highest trade and budget deficits in history," said U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, speaking for the presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry. "You can pick one shining light on an ocean and say it represents the ocean, but it doesn't."
U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, said the numbers show just the opposite: "President Bush's economic policies are working for Ohio." Beyond the bottom-line number, he said some of the fastest-growing sectors of Ohio's economy - education, health care and professional jobs - pay better-than-average wages.
The argument over the numbers rests in part on where each campaign puts the yardstick.
There's no denying that Ohio - and the rest of the country - has lost jobs since Bush took office (though partisans still debate whether Bush inherited an economy already in decline). In January 2001, Ohio's unemployment rate was 3.9 percent.
So Democrats correctly point out that Ohio has lost 170,000 manufacturing jobs since then.
But Republicans stress what they've done lately. Since reaching a peak of 6.3 percent last July, Ohio's unemployment rate has steadily decreased to a seasonally adjusted 5.6 percent last month. And after four years of steady decreases, Ohio has created 1,700 manufacturing jobs so far this year, even after last month's 900 -job decrease.
"We've turned the corner," Portman said, crediting Bush's tax cuts with helping to spur investment. "The correct measure is what's happening now, and what the future looks like."
Democrats say Bush has to do a lot better if he's going to catch up to his own job-creation goals.
In Cincinnati Tuesday, Kerry noted Bush's own economic advisers predicted job growth of 5.1 million jobs in 2002. He noted the prediction was made after the terrorist attacks, the bursting of the bubble in technology stocks and other "excuses" for the poor economy.
"That says one of two things," said Jason Furman, the economic policy adviser to the Kerry campaign, in an interview Friday. "Either they were misleading people on how many jobs they'd create, or they've failed to produce just the minimum number of jobs you'd expect the average economy to create in that time period."
But even Kerry acknowledged the job numbers have started to turn around - though they're not the only measures of the outlook for middle-class Americans. The rising costs of health care, tuition and child care are leading to a decrease in real wages, he said.
Republicans said Kerry had to shift his message on jobs because it didn't jibe with the facts. "I think they're a couple months behind the reality, but they're realizing people are smart," Portman said. "With the kind of economic news we have, it's not believable for Sen. Kerry to continue to say it's the worst economy since the Great Depression."
Portman said the election will turn less on the jobs numbers themselves, but how individual Americans perceive their own economic situation in November.
An ABC News/Money Magazine poll this month found 67 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the economy. But other recent state-by-state polls have found an increasing number of Americans who say their own economic situation is improving.
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