The official unemployment rate of 10.2 percent is the worst in a quarter century.
In several regions of the United States — Michigan, parts of Ohio and Indiana, stretches of New England and the rural south, historically depressed urban areas — the jobless figures are so acute that they have become the definitional social, economic and political concern.
These numbers are bad.
And they are likely to get worse — potentially, if we experience a so-called “W” recession, in which the economy takes another deep dip, much worse.
How much worse, and for how long, will determine the extent to which concerns about joblessness will determine the outcome of the 2010 elections and set the course for the remainder of the Obama administration.
That political reality makes President Obama’s White House summit on jobs, which will be held Thursday, the seminal event of a week that may well be the most newsworthy of his young administration.
Yes, joblessness is a bigger deal than Afghanistan.
Yes, joblessness is a bigger deal than health care.
Yes, joblessness is a bigger deal than the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and the cap-and-trade fight.
It is a bigger deal, even, than Tiger Woods.
Don’t get read these words wrong. Afghanistan, health care and climate change matter. (Tiger Woods, not so much.) These challenges may pose more profound long-term threats and have more serious consequences than transitory joblessness numbers.
But if unemployment keeps rising — if it gets to 12-, 13-, 14-percent officially, and over 20 percent unofficially — it will be the only issue for the great masses of Americans who will tip the country’s political balance in a direction that either empowers or disempowers the Obama administration when it comes to addressing fundamental social, environmental and foreign policy concerns.
In other words: It’s still the economy, stupid.
So what should we hope for from the jobs summit?
Something real, not tinkering around the edges, and not a reprise of the tepid stimulus initiative that spent more on tax cuts for well-to-do Americans than it did for actual job creation.