Candidates Sound Off On Unemployment

The Labor Department has said the unemployment rate for August was a five-year high of 6.1 percent. Employers cut early 84,000 jobs during the month. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama both have plans they say will create more jobs.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The sharp spike in unemployment did not go unnoticed on the campaign trail. Democrat Barack Obama said the jobs lost this year are a reminder of how much is at stake if Republicans hang on to the White House, and Republican John McCain talked about job creation.

NPR's Jim Zarroli joins us to talk about what the candidates have been saying about unemployment. And Jim, with so many voters saying the economy is by far their most important voting issue, these unemployment numbers have got to factor into this campaign.

JIM ZARROLI: Yeah, it's bad news for the Republicans. Since 1960, there have been five elections when unemployment was higher than six percent, and in every case but one the party in power lost the presidency. That one exception was 1984.

The problem for John McCain is that we are coming off a period of relatively low unemployment. So you could say that, you know, an unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is not that high in historic terms, which is true, but compared to what we've seen in recent years, it seems high, especially for younger voters who haven't really ever lived through a weak job market.

BLOCK: So what is John McCain saying to voters to try to convince them that he can address this problem?

ZARROLI: Well, it's interesting to compare it to what the Bush administration says. The Bush administration says basically, you know, the job market is weakened, but the economy's fundamentally strong.

Senator McCain didn't try to sugarcoat the bad news today really at all. He said millions of Americans are gathering around the kitchen table and questioning how they can keep their homes, pay their medical bills and afford their children's education, and Washington has failed to act. He also said it was time to pass an economic plan that would really create jobs.

BLOCK: And what is his prescription for jump-starting the jobs market?

ZARROLI: Well, some of it is, you know, Republican boilerplate. He wants lower taxes and less regulation. He also says, you know, he's gone beyond this. He's talked about worker training a lot more lately. Here's what he said during his convention speech last night.

JOHN MCCAIN: We will prepare them for the jobs of today. We will use our community colleges to help train people for new opportunities in their communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN: For workers in industries that have been hard hit, we'll help make up part of the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary lower- paid one while they receive retraining that will help them find secure, new employment at a decent wage.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ZARROLI: So he's talking about a rather extensive effort to train workers and also supplement their wages, and as with so many other ideas that come out of Washington, the question is, you know, who's going to pay for something like that?

BLOCK: Right. Well, let's turn to the Democrats now. What is Barack Obama saying about this issue of unemployment?

ZARROLI: Well, he has, as you can imagine, tried to tie this to John McCain as much as possible. He talked about jobs in his acceptance speech last week when he talked about the American promise.

BARACK OBAMA: It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers and play by the rules of the road.

ZARROLI: Now, Senator Obama has proposed a number of things to create jobs, like eliminating the capital gains tax for small businesses. He's also talked about putting $50 billion into big infrastructure projects like bridge-fixing and highway construction and so forth. Half of this would go directly to the states.

He says this would have the benefit of creating jobs very quickly, unlike some of the things John McCain is talking about, which are kind of more long-term.

He also says one way the United States can create new jobs is by investing more money in new technologies. Here's what he said in his acceptance speech.

OBAMA: And I'll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy, wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels, an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced.

ZARROLI: I talked to one long-time observer of economic policy in Washington today, and he said, you know, he thinks this should really be Obama's issue, but he's not sure Senator Obama has really persuaded voters yet that he connects to their concerns about the economy the way, say, Bill Clinton did in 1992.

He says neither has McCain, really, but he was a little surprised. He said this should really be an issue at this point that Senator Obama owns, and he doesn't.

BLOCK: Okay, Jim, thanks so much.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Jim Zarroli in New York.

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