Job seekers fill out paperwork while waiting to speak to a recruiter at the… (Scott Eells / Bloomberg )
News reports Thursday morning highlighted two seemingly disappointing economic indicators: claims for new unemployment benefits were higher than expected, and sales of existing homes dropped slightly from the month before. But the data weren't as bad as the headlines suggested. They just weren't very good. And as a consequence, they don't fit into the dueling story lines that President Obama and his likely Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have been advancing in their campaigns.
The Labor Department reported that 386,000 newly jobless Americans filed claims for unemployment benefits last week. On the plus side, that's 2,000 fewer from the previous week and 14,000 less than 400,000, the rough dividing line between rising and shrinking unemployment. On the minus side, the number of new claims in recent weeks has been higher than it was a month ago, suggesting that the job market isn't growing as fast as it was in the first quarter of 2012.
Meanwhile, according to the National Assn. of Realtors, sales of existing homes fell 2.6% in March, with the drop especially pronounced in the West. That's bad. But the percentage of sales that involve foreclosures shrank, as did the number of unsold homes on the market. That's good. So too are the median sales price and the number of sales when compared to the previous March.
Such middling results don't jibe with the Obama campaign's narrative, which is that the president's policies have helped the country climb steadily out of the deep hole dug by the mortgage meltdown and Wall Street collapse. Yes, the progress appears to be continuing, but at a pace that may be too slow for voters to notice.
On the other hand, things are clearly better than they were two years ago, and the data don't show the country on the brink of backsliding. That's contrary to Romney's narrative, which is encapsulated in this snippet from a speech he gave at a shuttered factory in Ohio on Thursday: "If you want to know where [Obama's] vision leads, open your eyes because we’ve been living it for the last three years. It leads to lost jobs, lost homes, lost dreams."
With an unemployment rate above 8%, there's more than the usual amount of woe in the electorate. But is there enough to make such a bleak assessment ring true? I doubt it.
Other economic data also show the public's growing confidence despite the high unemployment and low growth. In particular, retail sales climbed in March more than analysts expected. Even as other data showed signs of weakness -- particularly manufacturing output, which had been a relative bright spot -- consumers are increasingly comfortable with the current economic climate.
In short, the long presidential slugfest is beginning against a backdrop that doesn't give a clear advantage to either side. Yes, Romney can speak to Americans' anxiety about the excruciatingly slow recovery. And yes, Obama can talk optimistically about the country's future. But if the economy remains stuck in "meh," both are going to have to come up with more believable story lines.
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