What Jobs Numbers Mean For Obama's Employment

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President Barack Obama speaks about jobs, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011, at Manchester High School Central in Manchester, N.H.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
President Barack Obama speaks about jobs, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011, at Manchester High School Central in Manchester, N.H.

President Obama acknowledged Friday that the economic recovery has a long way to go. Still, he was able to share some good news. The Labor Department reported that U.S. employers added 200,000 jobs in December, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent.

"Obviously, we have a lot more work to do," he said, "but it is important for the American people to recognize that we've now added 3.2 million new private-sector jobs over the last 22 months."

Those better-than-expected numbers could help Obama as he tries to hang onto his own job.

'An Uphill Battle'

December's unemployment rate was the lowest it's been in nearly three years. While the White House is always careful not to make too much out of any one month's reading, the jobless rate has also been falling steadily now for the last four months.

Of course, troubles in Europe or a spike in gas prices could still derail the fragile recovery. Barring that kind of shock, Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for IHS Global Insight, says employers will probably keep hiring in the months to come, though not as quickly as people might like.

"I think we can expect slow but steady downward movements in the unemployment rate, down to say, around 8 percent by the time of the election," he says. "While it's better than the alternative, it's quite slow."

Maybe too slow. With 13 million Americans still unemployed, Behravesh says, many people have grown impatient with the president's policies and that could cost Obama in November.

"I would say right now the president has something of an uphill battle on the economy, even if we see further progress on the unemployment rate," he says.

Talk At The Kitchen Table

Still, the jobs picture and the president look a lot better than they did last summer, when some forecasters were predicting a double-dip recession for the United States. Political analyst Nathan Gonzales of The Rothenberg Political Report says while Friday's jobs numbers represent good news for Obama, it's too soon for campaign staffers to start breathing easy.

"I don't think there's a magic unemployment number where the president will or won't get re-elected. What matters more is how ... people feel about where we're headed," he says. "And until that gets down to the kitchen-table level, and people start to feel things getting better, then it's still going to be tough, I think, for the president to get re-elected."

There are some signs that kitchen-table accounting is getting a little rosier. In addition to the job gains, people worked slightly longer hours for slightly higher wages in December, and holiday spending was up.

"We have definitely seen [confidence] improving since November, because really since October unemployment has been coming down from 9.1 percent," says Lydia Saad of the Gallup Organization, which regularly polls people about their economic confidence. "And we've seen economic confidence rebounding."

Influencing The Vote

Saad cautions confidence has climbed back only to where it was in June, before the debt ceiling debacle sent Americans running for cover. She says what happens to the economy — and people's feelings about it — in the next six months will be critical.

"Voters really lock in around June. Whatever the economic numbers are by the end of the second quarter, those are the numbers they're voting on," Saad says. "So what happens to the economy between June and November is far less important than what happens between now and June."

For now, Obama's approval ratings remain below 50 percent, though they have been improving. The president continues to press Congress to pass portions of his jobs plan. He says last year's payroll tax cut contributed to the stronger job gains in December, and he's urging Congress to extend that tax cut throughout 2012.

"There's still a lot of struggles that people are going through out there. A lot of families are having a tough time. A lot of small businesses are still having a tough time," Obama says, "but we're starting to rebound. We're moving in the right direction. We have made real progress. Now is not the time to stop."

The president's re-election may hinge on whether voters agree.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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