-- The percentage of able-bodied Americans of working age in December who were unemployed, forced to take part-time work or who had given up looking for a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Not too long ago, having more than 20 million adults out of work or underemployed would have been seen as a crisis and a politically unsustainable status quo.
But that was the case every month of 2012, as confirmed by today’s jobs report. And the response is, well, nothing. Republicans wail about high taxes and regulation, Democrats carp about a lack of stimulus spending and voters and markets respond with a shrug.
Mitt Romney would often cite this number in his presidential campaign, pointing out that the Era of Obama had been marked with perennially high unemployment. He was hoping to arouse outrage at these disastrous numbers, but instead found himself confronted with a dispirited electorate already beyond the point of outrage and well on to the acceptance phase.
When Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, were telling voters in the closing weeks of the campaign that “America can do better,” it was as much a plea for a rejection of the status quo as it was an offer of new hope. The message to disaffected independent voters was that they should not accept the “new normal.”
But as proven by the designated hitter rule, “baked not fried” potato chips and “The Real Housewives” franchise, even manifestly terrible things can eventually come to be accepted over time.
In December, some 12.2 million people tried to find work and could not, up a bit from November, with another 10 million or so either stuck in part-time jobs or having given up looking.
There is much human suffering in those numbers: families edging closer to homelessness, men and women losing confidence in themselves and whole communities sliding out of the middle class. And both sides of the political divide keep waiting for the suffering to be so great that voters demand action and change.
But as the American electorate demonstrated in November, they have come to expect less. Democrats blame gerrymandering for the ratification of the status quo in Washington, saying House Republicans held on because of favorable district drawing, and they are partly right. But the shrunken electorate and gloomy outlook expressed in exit polls tells us that there was more at work.
As we saw in a slew of year-end polls, Americans have little expectation that things are going to get better in 2013, and maybe never will.
Even during the darkest days of the recession that followed the Panic of 2008, Americans believed that their children would be better off – that the materialistic side of the American Dream was still intact. But in the year-end survey by Gallup and USA Today, by 50%-47%, respondents said the country's best years are behind us.
When President Obama made a positive case for his re-election it was on the grounds that while things were bad, they would have been worse had a Republican been president. Democratic heartthrob Bill Clinton said it best, telling fans at the Democratic National Convention that no president could have “repaired all the damage” that Obama found upon taking office.
Obama won not because Americans believed he had the right economic policies or that his prescription of higher taxes and higher spending was going to return America to the prosperity of the previous generation.
Obama won mostly because he successfully defined Romney as unfit for office but he also won because many Americans came to believe that a weak economy, huge deficits and massive unemployment were unavoidable conditions.
Obama’s first order of business upon re-election was pushing through major tax increases in keeping with his campaign pledge to force rich people like Romney to “pay their fair share.” But to do so, he sacrificed the chance to avoid a battle over the looming debt limit.
Republicans, angry and embarrassed by the tax battle, are warming themselves up for fierce fighting over the debt limit in February and in March for the expiry of the legislation funding the government in the absence of a federal budget.
The chances of a federal shutdown, partial in the case of the debt limit since the government borrows more than a third of what it spends, or complete in the case of the budget-substitute law, are now sky high.
The president believes he can shame Republicans into granting him more borrowing power and continuing current rates of deficit spending on the grounds that Americans will not tolerate any risks to the already weakened economy.
But the same voters who declined to join Romney in his outrage at the “new normal” may not be so inclined to join Obama in outrage at Republicans for demanding spending cuts in exchange for oceans of new red ink.
That may change once they lock the gates at Yellowstone and Social Security recipients start getting threatening letters from Kathleen Sebelius, but in the next six weeks the president may find himself where Romney once was: unable to rise the alarm.
Yes, the economy is weak, voters will say. But it’s been weak in just the same way for about three years. That merits little more than a shrug before returning one’s attention to a bowl of Baked Ruffles and the latest episode of “The Real Housewives of Triadelphia.”
And worse still, the steps Obama will have to take to frighten the country into supporting him in his debt fight with Republicans will themselves worsen the economy as anxious investors and consumers pull in their wings ahead of the storm.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“Clearly if you are the president you have to protect your country. You do what you have to do. [Obama’s anti-terrorism policy] vindicates what the Bush administration has done.. And now we have a national consensus on that, which I think is a terrific advance over where we were when the Republicans were in power. It's the only reason to be grateful that Obama won in 2008.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.