To become president and to be re-elected president takes much luck (among other factors, like money and political skill.) And President Obama appears to be one of the most fortunate presidents in recent memory with the release of the latest employment report.
With a month left before the general election, the U.S. Labor Department's report that the jobless rate dropped to 7.8 percent in September — falling below the 8 percent barrier for the first time since early in Obama's presidency — was good news not just for the nation, but for a president who needed some right about now. The economy also added 114,000 jobs in September, below estimates, but still a decent number.
Coming as it did on the heels of the president's widely derided debate performance against Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday night, the new economic data was likely to give a timely jolt of renewed confidence to a Democratic presidential campaign that was thrown off stride by the debate.
At a campaign rally in Fairfax, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb, Obama walked the line of marking the good news while trying not to seem too triumphant — since there were still more than 12 million people looking for work:
"After losing about 800,000 jobs when I took office, our businesses have added 5.2 million new jobs over the past 2-1/2 years. This morning we found out that the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since I took office. More Americans entered the workforce, more people are getting jobs.
"Now, every month reminds us we still have too many of our friends and neighbors who are looking for work. There are too many middle-class families that are struggling to pay the bills. They were struggling long before the crisis hit. Today's news certainly is not an excuse to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points. It's a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now."
If it was good news for the president, it raised a new challenge for Romney. Would his attacks against Obama's management of the economy be dulled by the good economic news now that the jobless rate has fallen below the 8 percent psychological barrier?
Obama's re-election chances have long been clouded by how halting the economic recovery has been. The president has been haunted specifically by an optimistic forecast, made by some of his economic experts early in 2009 as part of their argument for the $800 billion fiscal stimulus, that it would cause the unemployment rate to peak at 8 percent.
Of course, it eventually went higher, topping out at 9.9 percent in May 2010 before it began declining. The difference, however, between Obama's economists' forecasts — despite all their warnings that such forecasts are inexact — and the reality of the actual jobless numbers, gave Obama's Republican opponents plenty of fodder to attack him over much of his presidency.
While Friday's relatively good employment report clearly had to be a relief for the Obama campaign, it was indisputable that the economy was still far from robust. That left plenty of room for Republicans, especially Romney, to continue their economic attacks against Obama.
And, indeed, that was the only approach that made sense this late in the campaign, since Romney's entire argument for his candidacy boils down to an argument that Obama has failed to turn around the economy — and that the former Massachusetts governor's success in the private sector makes him the better choice for the White House.
Romney issued a news release along those lines:
"This is not what a real recovery looks like. We created fewer jobs in September than in August, and fewer jobs in August than in July, and we've lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office. If not for all the people who have simply dropped out of the labor force, the real unemployment rate would be closer to 11%. The results of President Obama's failed policies are staggering — 23 million Americans struggling for work, nearly one in six living in poverty and 47 million people dependent on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. The choice in this election is clear. Under President Obama, we'll get another four years like the last four years. If I'm elected, we will have a real recovery with pro-growth policies that will create 12 million new jobs and rising incomes for everyone."
In the hothouse atmosphere of a presidential race, even the integrity of the economists and statisticians who produce the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs data became a casualty of political warfare.
Former GE CEO Jack Welch, for instance, through a tweet, questioned the timing of the September jobless rate falling to 7.8 percent:
"Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers."
The "Chicago guys" would be Obama and his campaign team, which is based in the nation's third largest city.
Coming to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' defense was Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank.
"It is simply outrageous to make such a claim, and echoes the worrying general distrust of facts that seems to have swept segments of our nation. ... BLS is a highly professional agency with dozens of people involved in the tabulation and analysis of these data. The idea that the data are manipulated is just completely implausible."
It was just the latest example of statistics being seen through a partisan lens.
In recent weeks, the reliability of polls from some of the nation's most respected polling firms has been questioned by Republican critics because they showed Obama leading in most battleground states. Republicans accused the pollsters of sampling bias, of phoning too many Democrats relative to Republicans. Pollsters, and some Republican non-pollsters, have dismissed such suspicions.
One more official jobs report is scheduled for release before the general election. That comes on Nov. 2, just four days before Americans go to the polls.
Coming as close as that one will to the election, it may be too late to do either presidential campaign significant good, especially with all the early voting taking place throughout the nation.
So Friday's report may very well be the last one that really matters to the 2012 presidential election.
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