Last Friday's jobs report was quite good - 288,000 new jobs added and a drop in the unemployment rate to 6.3 percent. If they weren't exactly popping champagne corks over at the White House, at the very least there was surely a sigh of relief, and a renewed hope that if they can string together a few more months of healthy growth, then Democrats might head into November with a better narrative about the economy, mitigating one of many factors suggesting a big Republican win.
But Democrats' own assessments of the fundamentals of the economy - how it works, who controls it and where it has gone not just this year but over decades - make it very difficult to celebrate any short-term gains, no matter how significant.
Democrats have been spending a lot of time lately talking about inequality, which is not a function of what happened this month or last month, but the result of forces and trends that have evolved over the last 30 years. That's an important discussion to have and an argument that resonates with voters, particularly when Republicans are inclined to deny inequality exists or that it matters if it does. But when you've been saying that we have a profound and deep-seated inequality problem that was three decades in the making, it's awfully hard, on the evidence of a month or two of job growth, to turn around and say, "Things are going much better now!"
That doesn't mean Democrats can't argue, as they surely will, that the Obama administration's policies are helping the economy pull out of the long and painful period of difficulty we've had since the Great Recession. And, of course, they can also say that things would have been much worse had the other guys been in charge. But because they've begun to talk about how the system is rigged, they can't sing "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Meanwhile, even if the recovery is showing some signs of life, it turns out that there isn't much evidence that economic factors, and job growth in particular, have a strong impact on the outcome of midterm elections like the one coming up in November; the economy plays a much larger role in presidential elections. Even in the best-case scenario - if job growth is healthy and there's lots of good news about the Affordable Care Act - Republicans will probably still have a strong advantage among the voters likely to turn out.
Republicans can make a simple argument. If a healthy jobs report comes out, they can say "Not good enough." If the next one is poor, they'll say, "See? This is Obama's fault." For Democrats, when the news is bad, they have to make a complex argument about hypotheticals (what might have happened if Republican policies were followed) and the long-term trends that hold us back. And even good news can't be celebrated too much, lest Democrats undermine their broader arguments about inequality, and the items on their agenda, such as a minimum-wage increase, that are meant to address it.
So the real challenge for Democrats will be balancing the two arguments they want to make: first, that their policies have made things better, and second, that something fundamental in the American economy still needs to change. It won't be easy - no matter what the jobs reports say.
Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for The American Prospect.