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02 Oct 2021

WASHINGTON — Democrats had entered a defensive crouch ahead of Friday’s jobs report, which economists said would show the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs thanks to a surge of COVID-19 cases.

But it turned out the economy actually added nearly half a million jobs in January despite the quick-spreading omicron variant – another dollop of good news at the end of an unusually good week for Joe Biden.

The Biden administration has been flailing for months, with the coronavirus pandemic raging onward, despite many promises to contain the virus; its legislative agenda stalled, despite hopes he could be the next LBJ; and Russia threatening to invade Ukraine, despite Biden’s vows to be tougher on Moscow than his predecessor was. And inflation is burning holes in people’s wallets.

This week’s good breaks: the strong jobs report (which came with corrections making the past two jobs reports look far better than they did at the time), bipartisan backing for his strategy to counter Russia, a small step toward passage of a bipartisan economic package designed to counter China and a successful operation to assassinate a terrorist leader.

Don’t expect Biden’s approval rating to immediately skyrocket, or for the logjams blocking his legislative flow to disappear entirely. Centuries of history indicate Democrats are almost certainly in for a painful midterm, and attempts to move past the pandemic and accompanying economic malaise in the past have been undone by new variants. But the past week provides a peek at how Biden could maybe create a comeback narrative.

“People have counted out Joe Biden many times in his career, and he’s proved them wrong,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who chairs the Democratic Governors’ Association, said in an interview last weekend, before Biden’s string of good news. “His perseverance and his passion are going to shine through, particularly as we emerge from this pandemic.”

It was two years ago this week, after all, that Biden suffered a disastrous loss in the Iowa caucuses before he went on to win the Democratic nomination for president. Iowa was so bad for Biden he even lost some precincts to long-shot candidate Andrew Yang. The caucus itself was such an administrative mess that the whole episode seemed like an omen of cataclysm for the entire Democratic party.

The first bit of good news: a successful mission to assassinate ​​Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the self-declared Islamic State. While questions remain about civilian deaths — the U.S. says al-Qurayshi blew himself up, killing his wife and children, as American forces closed in — the successful raid, months in the making, should help Biden deflect GOP attacks on his foreign policy.

“This operation is a testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they try to hide anywhere in the world,” Biden said in a celebratory speech on Thursday morning.

The second step came on Friday, when the House passed — largely along party lines — legislation aimed at bolstering American competitiveness with China. The legislation still has a road to travel before passage, since the House will need to reconcile its version with the Senate’s bipartisan package. But if it does pass, strategists in both parties believe its provision will make primo campaign advertisement fodder for incumbents who backed it.

But the cooperation Democrats are getting on legislation aimed at boosting federal support for technological research won’t extend to Biden’s quest for an overhaul of the social safety net. The Build Back Better Act remains as stalled as ever, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) this week pointedly describing the bill as “dead.”

Finally, the jobs report. Economists predicted net job losses for the month of January, and Democrats were preemptively warning that one bad month didn’t mean the economy had gone totally off track. But then the Labor Department announced Friday morning that the economy had added 467,000 jobs — and not only that, the department revised previous estimates, undoing several dud months that at the time they were announced foretold more political doom for Biden.

The White House has tried to get the country to focus on wage and job growth in the past — Biden’s first year in office has seen the highest average monthly job growth in decades — but inflation has diminished or eliminated those gains for many workers. The ability of economic growth to power through the pandemic has reassured some economists that the hot economy can survive Federal Reserve interest rate hikes that are coming this year.

Nevertheless, Friday’s good news will dissipate rapidly, and Republicans can talk right past it. Economy unexpectedly added jobs? They’ll just say the opposite happened.

“Joe Biden’s economy is leaving Americans behind, and the January jobs report shows that there are hundreds of thousands less jobs than he promised,” Republican National Committee Ronna McDaniel said. “Hardworking Americans are facing historically high inflation, decreasing real wages and spiking gas prices, but Joe Biden doesn’t care.”

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