‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’: The Allure, and Danger, of a Favorite Political Mantra

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If the popular mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs” seems awfully familiar, it’s because you’ve been hearing it for at least the past three decades. “The answer to recession can be stated in three simple words: jobs, jobs, jobs,” proclaimed Ted Kennedy all the way back on June 10, 1980, as he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination. Ronald Reagan soon borrowed the phrase in his White House quest that year. His running mate, George H.W. Bush, embraced it throughout his presidency, whether in describing the benefits of a highway bill or explaining the purpose of his trip to Japan. The Democrats tried to co-opt it during the 1992 campaign. And as the political focus has returned to the lingering results of the recession recently, “jobs, jobs, jobs” has been pushed back into lexicographical prominence once more. Sometimes a fourth “jobs” is thrown in at the end, in case the first three don't get the point across.

In just the past few days, Florida Senate candidate Charlie Crist ("It's all jobs, jobs, jobs. It's got to be Mission One"), California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ("The key thing is ... to do everything that we can ... to create jobs, jobs, jobs"), and Blue Dog congressman Heath Shuler ("The most important thing is jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs") have all utilized the mantra. Prominent Democratic party leaders, from Nancy Pelosi ("I believe that the Democratic base, as well as the Republican base and the independent base, is interested in jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs") to Chuck Schumer ("Right now, our first priority must be jobs, jobs, jobs") to Joe Biden ("[Obama's] laser focus has been ... jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs") have all joined in on the fun in the past few months as well.

It’s no mystery why the chant has enjoyed such popularity among politicians for so long. The American people, in every era, usually don’t have time for complex arguments, nor are they moved by nuance. Boiling your economic goals into one appealing concept (jobs!) and then saying that word over and over again in quick succession allows you to get your message across. "It's the same thing as putting three exclamation points after a word, it's just for emphasis," says Martin Medhurst, an expert in political rhetoric at Baylor University. "Just to underscore that, 'We've heard you and we're on the job,' so to speak."

But what makes “jobs, jobs, jobs” effective as a slogan — it’s single-minded repetitiveness — is also what makes it dangerous. Because it doesn't just give the impression of "Yeah, we'll scrounge up some jobs for you, eventually." It's more like, "You won't be able to walk down the street without tripping over half a dozen jobs!" The inherent hyperbole of "jobs, jobs, jobs" could exacerbate a situation in which the expectations among voters will already be hard to satisfy, considering that jobs are, in fact, not expected to come back in large numbers for quite a while. Though millions of jobs have indeed been saved and created by the stimulus, a recent report by the Federal Reserve concluded that by the end of 2010, the unemployment rate would remain between 9.5 percent and 9.7 percent, which means the employment outlook won't be much better by November. "If something hasn't changed fairly substantially between now and then," says Medhurst, "they're going to find out that the rhetoric of jobs doesn't take you very far."

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney knows both the potential and the pitfalls of the phrase well. His successful 1984 campaign for prime minister centered around the slogan of “jobs, jobs, jobs” more than any other campaign ever has. “It’s pithy and powerful,” he tells us. “The people understood what I was talking about.” And though he eventually delivered those jobs to Canada, and was rewarded with his party's reelection, things didn’t get off to such a hot start initially. “You have to be careful,” Mulroney says. “I was sworn in on the 17th of September in 1984. And two weeks later, the Canadian job numbers came out, and they were pretty sad. And one of the networks led with a story” — he recalls it with a laugh — “Brian Mulroney has already failed in his first promise.”

Nancy Pelosi should understand the appeal of "jobs, jobs, jobs" as well. During the presidential campaign of 1992, she said the platform of Bill Clinton and the Democrats was "about jobs, jobs, jobs, and the leadership that it takes and the change that it takes to produce those jobs." As we know, the voters listened, kicking George H.W. Bush out of office. The Republicans will hope to repeat that success with a change in congressional leadership this November.