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ANALYSIS: Missouri gov. emphasizing high unemployment

Sunday, June 14, 2009 | 3:02 p.m. CDT; updated 8:22 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 23, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon has been traveling the state promoting a new economic development law by asserting that Missouri faces a 25-year high in unemployment.

That was true earlier this spring but no longer.

The most recent statistics show Missouri's unemployment rate posted the greatest monthly decline in the nation.

So why is Nixon accenting the negative instead of the positive as he discusses Missouri's economy?

One reason for Nixon's economic emphasis is his place in the four-year political cycle.

Nixon is a new Democratic chief executive who took over from a Republican administration in January after pledging during last year's campaign that his proposals would help turn around the economy.

In that regard, Nixon is in the same place as President Barack Obama, who mounted a similar campaign and emphasized the economy's shortcomings during his first few months in office.

At this point in the political cycle, it's too early for Nixon or Obama to be blamed for the poor economy. So they are safe in citing a high unemployment, because it's assumed they inherited the situation from their predecessors.

Although few politicians long for an economic recession, there is a sense in which it provides new officeholders a unique opportunity to show improvement.

By emphasizing Missouri's 25-year high in unemployment, Nixon is establishing a baseline against which to evaluate his record during a potential re-election campaign four years from now, said Peverill Squire, an MU political scientist.

"Both Obama and Nixon have emphasized how bad things look at the start of their administration so that when things get better down the road, they'll be able to take credit for it," Squire said.

Stressing economic struggles also can help propel a chief executive's policy proposals to enactment, because it creates a reason for urgent action.

The paramount proof is Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress within his first month in office.

Put simply: "People tend to highlight facts that lead to conclusions they wish to draw," said Eric Morris, an assistant communications professor at Missouri State University whose emphasis includes political rhetoric and persuasion.

Nixon's comparable accomplishment is the enactment of a bill expanding tax breaks to Missouri businesses. In his State of the State address in January, Nixon noted that Missouri was experiencing its highest unemployment rate in 25 years and called upon lawmakers to pass a job-creation bill by their mid-March break. The Republican-controlled Legislature ultimately approved the bill last month, on the final day of its 2009 session.

Nixon has continued to cite the 25-year unemployment high as he tours Missouri holding ceremonial bill signings.

Missouri's unemployment rate peaked at 8.7 percent in March, the highest rate since December 1983. But in April, it declined to 8.1 percent — the largest month-to-month percentage point drop of any state. May unemployment rates for states are scheduled to be released June 19 by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Instead of highlighting Missouri's peak unemployment rate, Nixon could tout the state's more recent unparalleled improvement.

But that could prove politically risky if Missouri's unemployment rate were to bounce back up. Consider the backlash that former President George W. Bush received after posing underneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner May 1, 2003 — only to have fighting in Iraq drag on through the remainder of his presidency.

"Things are sufficiently tenuous that nobody wants to risk getting out ahead of real economic improvement," Squire said. No politician wants to be "saying things have been improved and the problems are fixed, and then have a relapse."

In Nixon's case, the assertion that Missouri faces a 25-year high in unemployment is generally true, even if not fully accurate. Were it not for even higher unemployment rates in February and March, April's 8.1 percent jobless rate would have been a 25-year high.

In that regard, it might be politically foolish were Nixon to highlight Missouri's recent drop in its unemployment rate when the public perception is that unemployment remains high.

"There's a need for there to be some semblance between the tone of the president and the governor and the tone of the people," Morris said. "If people generally feel like the state's in a bad shape, it would be wise for the governor to have speeches reflective of that."

 


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