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Unemployment Data Are Often Colored By Politics


The pace of hiring in the United States slowed last month, but the unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent, the lowest it's been in 16 years. The monthly employment snapshot from the Labor Department is one of the most closely watched indicators of the health of the economy. NPR's Scott Horsley reports, no matter what the numbers say, how we feel about them is often colored by politics.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For the first time in a decade, most Americans feel good about the U.S. economy. A survey this spring by the Pew Research Center found nearly 6 in 10 think the economy is in good shape. That's up 14 points from a year ago.

Nearly all of the gain has come from Republicans who are now twice as likely to say the economy's doing well as they were last year, even though chief economist Nariman Behravesh of the IHS Markit says actual conditions haven't budged much.

NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: There's no big change in the economy. Clearly, the change is the election and the politics. And obviously there's some people who like what happened and some who don't. The politics is sort of outweighing the economics.

HORSLEY: You see a dramatic display of that in Wisconsin where surveys before and after the November election found a stark partisan flip-flop in economic expectations. Charles Franklin, who conducts the poll for Marquette Law School, says Democrats are now much more pessimistic about the economy than they were before the election, while Republicans are more than three times as likely to think the economy's going to get better.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: There's nothing irrational in partisans believing that a change of government will dramatically improve the outlook of the economy.

HORSLEY: But the election didn't just change people's expectations for the future. It also changed their feelings about the recent past. President Trump had been in office less than two months when Franklin conducted his most recent survey, and already four times as many Republicans said the economy had gotten better in the last year than said so last October.

FRANKLIN: It's really hard to see how people change their views of the past except that our perceptions of the economy are filtered through partisan lenses.

HORSLEY: When he was running for president, Trump often dismissed encouraging economic indicators as phony. Now he celebrates every positive bit of news.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Absolutely tremendous economic progress since Election Day on November 8. The economy is starting to come back and very, very rapidly.

HORSLEY: Franklin says it's long been the case that Americans are more satisfied when their party controls the White House. But the trend lines for both Democrats and Republicans used to go up and down together in response to real-world conditions. Over the last dozen years or so, though, those lines have come untethered from one another. Partisan differences now seem to carry more weight than our shared national experience.

FRANKLIN: How do you have responsive politics if in fact the public is seeing two such different worlds?

HORSLEY: And, Franklin says, much of this partisan filtering is not even conscious.

FRANKLIN: It'd be one thing if we put on rose-colored glasses and we knew we were doing it. But I'm afraid with a lot of political perceptions, the color of our glasses is something we don't even think about. And when the party in control switches, we switch the shade of our glasses without really much consideration of that.

HORSLEY: Those partisan lenses probably wouldn't blind people to another deep recession nor a genuine boom. But so long as the economy is chugging along in fits and starts, there's lots of room for partisan interpretation. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MYLAB'S "POP CLIENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.

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