Lest it get lost in the ballot-counting frenzy: The house is still very much on fire. And regardless of who ultimately controls the White House and Congress next year, those currently in office have a duty to put the fire out.

Now. Not in three months. Now.

For months, even before mail-in vote tallies dominated news coverage, pundits speculated about who would be the next leader of the free world. Meanwhile, millions of Americans agonized over a more fundamental question: whether they would have enough money to pay their rent or put food on the table.

As the Labor Department reported on Thursday, nearly 22 million Americans are still applying for unemployment. That is crisis-level joblessness. What’s more, the two remaining programs expanding federal unemployment benefits are set to expire around Christmas. (A third program, which supplemented state-level benefits by $600 a week, expired in July.) Already, some Americans have exhausted all the benefits that these remaining programs have to offer because of how long such unlucky people have been out of work, according to National Employment Law Project senior policy analyst Michele Evermore.

True, the country has added back a lot of jobs. But the pace of rehiring has already slowed dramatically, and is not nearly robust enough to help these Americans pay their bills without federal help. Forecasts predict that growth slowed to about 500,000 to 600,000 jobs in October — down from 661,000 in September and millions during the summer months.

In normal times, of course, adding 500,000 jobs in a single month would be something to celebrate. But these aren’t normal times. The economy remains more than 10 million jobs in the hole. If a similar pace of hiring continues, it will be nearly two more years before the country recovers all the jobs lost since February.

And there are reasons to worry that the pace might not hold steady but, instead, decelerate in the months ahead.

First, a smaller share of laid-off workers say they expect to be recalled by their old jobs; the fraction of unemployed people saying they’re on “temporary” rather than “permanent” layoff has fallen from about 80% in April to about 40% in September, according to an analysis from Brookings Institution researchers Stephanie Aaronson and Wendy Edelberg. Workers on permanent layoff are less likely to find new employment quickly and more likely to drop out of the labor force altogether.

Second, the recent rise in coronavirus infection rates and the falling temperatures suggest that industries that have suffered the most job losses — such as travel or leisure and hospitality — may be in for a long, hard winter. Small-business activity has already flatlined, according to data from Homebase.

Finally, with in-person schooling and other child-care options still shuttered, lots of workers — disproportionately women — won’t be able to return to work even if they can find job offers.

Already the magnitude of the suffering is enormous.

Roughly 11% of adults say their households sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat in the previous seven days, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey. Large fractions also report imminent threats of eviction or foreclosure, despite Band-Aid measures intended to stave off such displacement.

Distracted by the Supreme Court hearings, political campaigns, ballot-counting and concomitant gyrations in the stock market, many in the media have done a lousy job of training attention on persistent economic pain and citing politicians’ indifference to it.

The Democratic-controlled House passed another round of fiscal relief back in May that included support for unemployed workers, small businesses, schools, and state and local governments. The GOP-controlled Senate refused to even give it a vote. The House passed a revised version last month, but Senate Republicans and the White House have alternately stood in the way. News reports on these negotiations were dwarfed by election coverage.

The day after Election Day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., unexpectedly announced that another “rescue package” would be on the agenda when the chamber reconvenes next week. This sounds like good news — except that some Trump economic advisers have predicted that the president will take his ball and go home during his remaining time in office if he is not reelected.

The imbalance in media coverage has essentially given President Trump, and his Republican allies, a pass for such tantrums and inaction. Already, some pundits are pontificating about whether Trump will run again in 2024, rather than whether he will fulfill the obligations of his office while we know he still has them.

Needless to say — though apparently it still needs saying — the point of running for office isn’t just to win; it’s to govern.

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