WASHINGTON (AP) - The nation's steady-but-modest job growth
presents political challenges for both of November's
all-but-certain presidential rivals.
Republican Mitt Romney needs an ailing economy to fully exploit
his image as a "Mr. Fix-It" who can restore the nation's
financial health, as he turned around the troubled 2002 Winter
Olympics. President Barack Obama needs job-creation momentum to persuade voters that things are moving in the right direction, even
if millions of people remain unemployed.
Friday's neither-hot-nor-cold jobs report leaves both campaigns
unsure of whether they can sell their narratives. Employers added
120,000 jobs last month, about half the December-February pace and well short of the 210,000 economists were expecting. Still, the
unemployment rate declined from 8.3 percent in February to 8.2
percent, the lowest since about the time Obama took office.
GOP leaders were quick to note that the rate dropped largely
because many Americans stopped looking for work and were not
counted in the government survey.
The U.S. jobs picture was bleaker when Romney began his second
presidential bid a year ago, emphasizing his experience in running
the Olympic games and reorganizing companies while at Bain Capital.
He said jobs grew during his four years as Massachusetts governor,
but critics note that other states had more robust growth.
GOP strategists say Romney's hopes this fall hang largely on his
ability to convince voters that the current pace of recovery is
unacceptable and he can substantially speed it up.
Romney, who's closing in on the Republican nomination, called
Friday's jobs report "weak and very troubling."
"Millions of Americans are paying a high price for President
Obama's economic policies, and more and more people are growing so discouraged that they are dropping out of the labor force
altogether," he said in a statement. Obama's "excuses have run
out," he said.
Obama was more upbeat at a White House gathering. "Our economy
has now created more than 4 million private-sector jobs over the
past two years and more than 600,000 in the past three months," he
"There will still be ups and downs along the way," the
president said. "We've got a lot more work to do."
Democrats cling to historical data showing that presidents tend
to get re-elected if the economy is improving during their fourth
year in office, even if it's below normal levels. In that light,
the key news for Obama in Friday's report was that jobs are still
being created, not that the pace was half what it was during the
previous three months.
"The trend is still his friend. But you have to worry about
whether it's a fickle friend," said Jared Bernstein, a former
economics aide in the Obama White House. "The question of whether the economy has truly achieved escape velocity hasn't been
convincingly answered yet," he said.
Republican strategist Brian Nick said Obama will have a hard
time convincing voters they should accept a poky recovery and an
unemployment rate that has exceeded 8 percent for more than three
years. "I think it's worse out there than maybe the administration
realizes," Nick said. Many older Americans keep working when
they'd rather retire, he said, and many others are so discouraged
they have quit looking for jobs.
Romney's message of "we can do better" will resonate this
fall, Nick said.
Strategists in both parties found modest comfort in Friday's
"To the extent there's a mixed message about some of the
numbers, it gives Romney something to hold onto," said Joel
Johnson, a Democrat who has worked in Congress and the Bill Clinton White House. Obama's allies must keep reminding voters that the 2008 economic collapse happened on President George W. Bush's watch and now, "we're clawing our way out," Johnson said.
Romney must highlight the economy's ongoing weaknesses, "but
you don't want to root against progress," he said.
Republicans say employment isn't the only important economic
factor in the presidential race. High gasoline prices and concerns
about federal spending and deficits also will work against Obama,
But Republicans know they cannot count on economic trends to
move their way. Romney has broadened his criticisms of Obama in
recent days, saying voters should oust the president because of
things he has done and unknown things he might do.
Romney repeatedly cites Obama's supposedly private comments to
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, in which Obama said he would
have "more flexibility" to deal with missile defense after the
"He does not want to share his real plans before the election,
either with the public or with the press," Romney told newspaper
editors and publishers Wednesday. "By flexibility, he means that
`what the American public doesn't know won't hurt him."'
"On what other issues will he state his true position only
after the election is over?" Romney said.
Obama, meanwhile, has widened his criticisms of Romney, a tactic
he may have to accelerate if employment slumps in coming months.
The president said at The Associated Press annual meeting in
Washington that Romney has embraced "thinly veiled social
Darwinism" by backing a House GOP budget that would cut taxes for
Americans, including the wealthiest, and reduce spending on many
Obama's Chicago-based campaign paid less attention Friday to the
jobs report than to a Washington Post story about Romney's
hard-to-find financial assets and an equal-pay dispute in
With no one sure what the next monthly jobs report might find,
the campaigns are preparing for a tough general election in which
the economy will be paramount and voters' moods unpredictable.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)