President Barack H. Obama, if current trends continue, will become the first Democrat to preside over a net national loss in domestic manufacturing jobs since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started reporting monthly employment data in 1939. Seven percent of manufacturing jobs nationwide (873,000) have disappeared since Obama took office. By contrast, manufacturing employment expanded under Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and James E. Carter. Even William J. Clinton, the first postwar Democrat to preside over a net loss of manufacturing jobs in the South, eked out a 323,000 nationwide gain during eight years in office. U.S. manufacturing employment under Clinton grew at an average monthly rate of 3,365 jobs. It would have to expand at an average monthly rate of 29,101 jobs from now through January 2013 for Obama to record a net gain, an unlikely proposition. Johnson was the last Democrat to preside over manufacturing employment growth that robust.
The largest industrial states have recorded manufacturing job losses under President Obama. These include California (121,000), Texas (62,400), Illinois (59,000), Pennsylvania (50,900), North Carolina (50,400), Ohio (46,400), Indiana (29,200), and Michigan (23,900). National manufacturing job losses under President Obama have been broad-based. Durable-goods industry sectors that have recorded job losses under Obama include wood products, nonmetallic mineral products, primary metals, fabricated metals, machinery, computer and electronic products, electrical equipment and appliances, transportation equipment, furniture and related products, and miscellaneous manufacturing. Non-durable-goods sectors that have recorded losses include food manufacturing, beverages and tobacco products, textile products, apparel, leather and allied products, printing and related support activities, petroleum and coal products, chemicals, and plastics and rubber products. No manufacturing sector has yet to record a gain.
Most incumbent Republicans lack the credibility to raise the issue. They were, after all, largely silent on manufacturing job losses under President George W. Bush. Manufacturing contracted by 4.5 million jobs under the Republican Bush, a 27-percent decline unlikely ever to be surpassed. The longest consecutive monthly increase in manufacturing jobs under President Bush was five months (December 2005 through April 2006). Obama has already exceeded that record in 2010, recording six consecutive months of small gains from January to June after monthly declines last year.
Most Republicans have listened for too long to economists who argue manufacturing job losses are unimportant as long as output expands. This argument overlooks countries like China, where manufacturing employment and output have both increased. It downplays the social consequences for families, including a greater government role as good-paying private-sector jobs disappear. It also ignores the political implications of long-term manufacturing job losses in a state such as Ohio, the key to the Electoral College. President Richard M. Nixon, the last Republican to preside over a net national gain in domestic manufacturing jobs, won Ohio’s electoral votes twice, as did Clinton. How will these Republicans assail Obama’s record to date in Ohio when nearly one in three manufacturing jobs (322,400) disappeared there under his predecessor?
Economists who defend President Obama’s economic policies argue he inherited an economy in recession and note that Bush also presided over a net loss of manufacturing jobs. But at some point President Obama’s economic policies, as they apply to the domestic manufacturing sector, will be judged on their own merit. And thus far under Obama, national manufacturing employment has declined to the level of spring 1941 (11.6 million), shortly before U.S. entry into World War II.
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.