WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden resisted the temptation to take a winning lap on Friday following the release of strong employment numbers in July, instead telling the country that rising Covid cases are an urgent threat to economic recovery.
“My message today is not a celebration,” Biden said in a White House statement. “It is a reminder that we still have a lot of hard work ahead of us, both to defeat the Delta variant and to continue the progress of our economic recovery.”
The highly contagious Delta strain of Covid currently accounts for at least 80% of new infections nationwide.
Still, last month, despite fears about the delta option and the difficulties faced by companies with a labor shortage, new hires rose as fast as they had for almost a year.
The number of non-farm workers rose by 943,000, while the unemployment rate fell to 5.4%, according to the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The raise was the best since August 2020.
The number of new jobs exceeded the economists’ expectations by almost 100,000, and the unemployment rate fell three tenths of a percent lower than forecast by experts.
In extolling the strength and resilience of the economic recovery, Biden did something on Friday that he rarely does: he pointed to Wall Street analysts to back up his point.
“What we do is work,” he said. “Don’t take my word for it. Wall Street forecasters predict our economy will grow by trillions of dollars and create 2 million well-paying jobs over the next 10 years.”
But July’s strong topline numbers don’t accurately reflect a worrying new development in recent weeks: the surge in Covid infections and hospital admissions attributed to the Delta variant.
This is because the actual numbers for the monthly BLS job reports are only calculated on the second week of the month based on that week’s data.
In the three weeks since the number of jobs was calculated in July, hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units have filled up again in parts of the country.
This has led some large employers and schools to freeze plans to fully reopen offices and campuses in the coming weeks.
The White House is deeply concerned that rising Covid case numbers could stall economic recovery and jeopardize Biden’s domestic agenda and Democrats’ mid-term election chances.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki answers questions during the daily briefing on August 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee | Getty Images
Sticks and carrots
And after months of relying on incentives, celebrity endorsements, and local contacts to get Americans to vaccinate, the Biden government went a tougher line last week adding sticks to the proverbial carrot-stick equation.
Federal employees who cannot prove their vaccination are exposed to a number of uncomfortable restrictions at work, such as being physically separated from their vaccinated colleagues.
The Pentagon also announced plans to add the Covid vaccine to mandatory vaccines for U.S. soldiers.
Biden did not address these measures in his speech on Friday, instead describing various measures the government is taking to protect the economic recovery.
He repeatedly referred to Covid as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” a phrase that some critics say fails to capture the universal impact of rising case numbers and things like reinstated mask requirements.
As the White House often notes, more than 90% of Covid hospital admissions are people who have not been vaccinated against the virus. And while people who have been vaccinated can become infected and transmitted with Covid, they usually show mild symptoms that are similar to the flu or sinus infection.
The view of the White House
Both publicly and privately, White House officials say the persistently high rate of unvaccinated Americans – 30% of eligible recipients – creates a situation where one virus, the coronavirus, essentially creates two different, parallel public health challenges.
The 166 million fully or partially vaccinated people whose individual Covid infections the government has not officially tracked since March are on a trail.
To them, the virus looks more like seasonal flu from recent years than the debilitating, week-long lung crisis millions of Americans experienced in 2020 before the vaccine became available.
But for the unvaccinated, many of whom live in the southeastern United States, the delta variant virus is just as deadly and far more contagious than the original virus in the early months of last year.
However, Biden sees reason for optimism. “I am pleased to report that primary vaccinations in America have increased by 4 million in the past week,” he said on Friday. “That’s more than we’ve seen in a long time.”
– CNBC’s Jeff Cox contributed to this report.