The Labor Department reported on Friday that the unemployment rate had fallen all the way back to the level of President Obama’s first full month in office, to 8.3 percent, from a high of 10 percent in late 2009. Yet unemployment also remains higher than it has been for any presidential election since the Great Depression.
Those dueling realities — an improving economy that remains very weak — create serious risks for the top political advisers to President Obama and Mr. Romney as they begin to grapple with the impact of Friday’s report. The image of an overly optimistic president could feel discordant and disconnected to voters who are still struggling with unemployment and foreclosures. For Mr. Romney, the improving economy puts at risk his central message as the business executive who can fix a stalled economy.
Economists were surprised by the strength of the new numbers, which showed a gain of 243,000 jobs last month and larger gains in earlier months than previously reported. Over the last year, the economy has added almost two million jobs for the best 12 months in five years. Stocks surged, with the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index closing only slightly below its high since Mr. Obama took office.
The economy has now been gaining strength for almost six months, according to a broad array of data, offering some reason for hope that the effects of the deep financial crisis are finally starting to fade.
Still, the economy will need several more years of strong job growth to return to anything resembling full health. And although many forecasters are growing more hopeful about this year, several factors — including Europe’s financial troubles and the turmoil in Iran — could change the situation quickly.
Aides to Mr. Obama said Friday that they remained wary of declaring a full-blown comeback, having trumpeted the beginnings of a recovery in early 2010 only to see it stymied by factors like persistent weakness in housing, reverberations from the BP oil spill and the Greek debt crisis.
In remarks on Friday, Mr. Obama laid out the theme that will be at the center of his re-election campaign, reminding voters how bad an economy he inherited and hailing the recent progress while being careful to add that there was still a long way to go.
“The economy is growing strongly. The recovery is speeding up,“ Mr. Obama said. But he conceded: “These numbers will go up and down in the coming months.”
Mr. Romney — the Republican front-runner, whom White House officials view as their likely opponent — also faces the danger of looking oddly out of step if he presses ahead, as he did on Friday, with his accusation that Mr. Obama had made the recession worse.
“This recovery has been slower than it should have been. People have been suffering for longer than they should have had to suffer,” Mr. Romney said, at a supply company in Sparks, Nev., before Saturday’s caucus in that state. “Will it get better? I think it’ll get better,” he added. “But this president has not helped the process. He’s hurt it.”
Mr. Romney’s aides offered few signals on Friday that he was preparing to abandon his line of attack. Top advisers said that any declaration of economic victory by Mr. Obama would be received poorly in places like Nevada, where unemployment remains above 13 percent.
Mr. Romney has based much of his campaign around attacks on Mr. Obama’s economic record and on the promise that, as someone who understands the private sector, Mr. Romney can do better.
When he announced his campaign at a farm in New Hampshire in June, he sounded many of the same overall themes that Bill Clinton did when running against George H. W. Bush in 1991: the president has failed, and somebody else deserves a chance.
Having beaten Newt Gingrich and his other rivals soundly in the Florida primary on Tuesday, Mr. Romney has returned to talking mostly about Mr. Obama.
Senior advisers to Mr. Romney said he would continue to argue that the economy should be far better than it is. Regardless of the economy, the advisers said, Mr. Obama will not be able to run away from criticism about the size of the federal government and the nation’s soaring debt.
“Voters remain worried that this slow rate of economic growth could become the new normal with Obama at the helm,” said Kevin Madden, an adviser to Mr. Romney. “Also, President Obama’s spending policies have racked up record deficits, and his big government regulatory approach has stunted growth in the business sector.” NYT