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The fate of health care reform may top the political worries of Democrats at the moment, but the economy could prove the issue that really hurts the party in the 2010 midterm elections.
And there's not necessarily a whole lot they can do about it.
The monthly figures showed the unemployment rate jumping to 9.7 percent in August, up from 9.4 percent in July, and economists widely believe that unemployment will continue to climb to the psychologically significant 10 percent threshold and possibly beyond.
That means month after month of government jobs reports that will give Republicans a ready-made news hook to argue that Democrats have failed to fix the economy.
And with the Congressional Budget Office predicting that unemployment won't peak until hitting 10.4 percent in mid-2010, there could be a lot of bad news days ahead for Democrats.
Pollsters say that the public still isn't blaming President Barack Obama for the sputtering economy, but that people are frustrated that their own situations aren't better.
And Republicans have used each upward tick to strike at the Obama administration's credibility, issuing a new round of reminders that the president and his advisers assured Americans that the passage of the $787 billion stimulus package would cap unemployment at around 8 percent, a number the White House has since conceded was based on an overly optimistic view of the economic situation at the time.
Congress will resolve the health care debate one way or the other in the coming months. But even when economic growth returns, experts say it will be sluggish, increasing the changes that average Americans won't consider the recession over for them.
What's more, hiring tends to lag behind other signs of recovery, and this recession has seen companies making much deeper cuts than in previous downturns. And that means high unemployment is going to be with us for some time.
"Employment is the number one issue when it's front and center the way it is. The discussion about health care is important, but it is still second to jobs, because without a job you can't do anything," said Republican pollster David Winston.
There are signs of economic recovery, and economists generally agree that the unpopular stimulus has blunted the severity of the downturn, along with other policy steps taken by Congress, the administration and the Federal Reserve.
But those facts pale in the face of the political impact of unemployment figures, analysts say.
"There are not that many statistics that have a serious emotional component to them. One of them is the unemployment rate. It's a cloud that hangs over the heads of a lot of people," affecting even those who haven't lost jobs themselves, since they can easily imagine it happening to them, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
"If there's any metric that you want to be working in your favor going into a congressional election, its unemployment."
Republicans are not wasting the powerful weapon. A flurry of critical statements followed the August jobs report Friday, claiming the administration's policies are killing jobs and hurting the economy.
The Republican National Committee put out a release accusing the administration of "ignoring reality" with its claims the stimulus is working. The National Republican Congressional Committee blasted out a release targeting more than 50 House Democrats for supporting a "destructive economic agenda has done nothing to help the ailing economy" and a stimulus that has yet to create jobs.
"Where are the jobs?" asked Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, invoking the GOP's favorite phrase on the economy. "In light of these numbers, it is more clear than ever that the president and the leaders of his party in Congress need to abandon their plans for a job-killing government takeover of health care and work with Republicans for a more responsible approach to health care reform. The Democrats' bloated 'stimulus' isn't working."
The Obama administration is fighting back, but officials have a tricky line to walk, needing to both acknowledge the continuing problems while also highlighting the good that the stimulus has accomplished.
"Less bad is not good. That's not how President Obama and I measure success," Vice President Joe Biden said Friday. "We're not going to be satisfied ... until we start adding, not losing, thousands of jobs per month."
But he and other administration officials argued that the job losses would be much steeper without the stimulus package. And they stressed the good news that job losses are slowing down.
"Just look at where we started in January. We saw a job loss of 700,000 jobs in January. Today, [the] August report shows that we're down to about 216,000. That's not good enough, but it's . a movement going in the right direction because of what we've begun to do with the stimulus program," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in an interview on MSNBC.
"There are a lot of people who kept their jobs, whether it was teachers, law enforcement officers, people working at clinics," she said.
But polls indicate that Democrats have their work cut out for them convincing Americans that the economy, at least for them, is getting better.
A late August poll by CBS News found that a mere 18 percent of Americans believe the economy in their local community has improved, though a third of those surveyed feel the national economy is on the upswing.
Eight in 10 Americans believe the economy is in at least somewhat bad shape, and one-third say it's really bad, according to the poll.
David Cantor, managing director and pollster for the Glover Park Group, has witnessed a related trend in focus groups he's conducted.
"Part of [the administration's problem] is that when people hear stimulus they think AIG bailout, they think auto bailout," said Cantor. "They don't think stuff that's going to change their local economy or their household; they think its money that's gone for other people."
Cantor argues that the stimulus-is-working argument could gain traction as more of the stimulus money goes out the door and people see its effects in their own neighborhoods.
There's certainly plenty of money left: The government has doled out only $66 billion of the package's $288 billion in tax cuts, and just $217.04 billion out of the $499 billion in spending has been obligated. Some of the already-funded construction projects may not be underway yet, either.
But history has shown unemployment numbers to be a powerful tool for the minority party.
One example that should worry Democrats: In the 1982 congressional elections voters punished Republicans — despite President Ronald Reagan's popularity - for double-digit unemployment, and the GOP lost 26 seats in the House.
Baker also points to the 1958 midterm election, when relatively high unemployment sparked a dramatic shift in the makeup of the Senate, with liberal Democrats replacing northern Republicans, ushering in the liberal renaissance that persisted until the mid-1960s.
"You can argue that well, the trend lines are favorable, and you can make the lagging indicator argument until you're blue in the face, but [unemployment] is an arsenal of ammunition for the opposing party," said Baker.
"It's a real test of the persuasive powers of a president."