Unemployment report could help turn tide for Obama campaign

The new job numbers released on Friday morning provided balm for the frazzled nerves of President Obama’s supporters at the end of his worst week of the 2012 campaign.

The national unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent, the lowest rate of Obama’s presidency.

The headline figure buttressed Obama’s argument that his economic policies were working, albeit more slowly than he would like.

It could also help the president and his aides turn the page after his soporific and meandering performance at the first televised debate on Wednesday.

Republicans insisted that the new statistics did not invalidate Mitt Romney’s central economic critique of the president, which is that he is wedded to an ineffective government-led approach.

They also argued that the shot of energy delivered by Romney’s debate performance would not ebb simply because of the employment report — especially given that the debate drew a TV audience numbering in excess of 67 million people.

Obama seized on the positive job numbers with zest, however. He referred to them during both of his campaign rallies Friday, in Fairfax, Va., and Cleveland, Ohio.

He also sought to cast his critics as hoping for failure.

“Today’s news should give us some encouragement,” he said in Cleveland. “It shouldn’t be an excuse for the other side to talk down the economy just to score a few political points.”

Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) stuck to their guns. At a rally in Virginia, Friday, Romney said:

“It looks like unemployment is getting better. But the truth is that if the same share of people were looking for jobs now that they were when the president took office, the unemployment rate would be 11 percent.”

Ryan issued a statement noting that the increase in employment seemed to come in large part via a surge in part-time jobs. “We should not have to settle for this new normal. This is not what a real recovery looks like,” he said.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said that the new jobs numbers were “a kick in the pants” for the Romney campaign, even though he stressed that conservatives were not in the business of welcoming bad news.

He argued that the employment report had served to provide Obama respite, and came less than 36 hours after Romney had landed his most effective punches of the general election contest.

“Everyone wants America to recover faster but, at the same time, it’s like Romney just can’t catch a break,” he said. “He was on a roll here and this is a talking point that [the Obama team] is going to use.”

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons stated that he believed the new figures were effective for Obama precisely because they complicated the argument that his opponents would have to make.

“It deprives them of a clean hit,” Simmons said. He added that the evidence that the economy was growing was more potent than the Republican claim that Romney would increase the speed of its acceleration.

The latter argument, he said, “is a very dull butter-knife on the tough hide of the American electorate. It’s not clean, it’s not sharp. To make the argument that growth could be faster acknowledges that growth is taking place.”

Conservative annoyance about the report, and its capacity to help Obama, boiled over Friday in some accusations that the books had been cooked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One spark for that particular fire was provided by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, a Romney supporter. Welch said in a tweet that the job numbers were “unbelievable” and, referring to Obama’s Chicago-based campaign team, added: “These Chicago guys will do anything...can’t debate so change numbers.”

Welch later admitted in an MSNBC interview that he had “no evidence” to back up the suggestion of manipulation, and it was widely decried by numerous respected economists.

Simmons said that the attempt to cast doubt on the numbers made the critics “look small and desperate.”

Independent observers like Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said that Democrats were more likely to see the job numbers as cause for a collective sigh of relief rather than outright jubilation.

“Republicans can no longer say that we’ve had 43 straight months of unemployment over 8 percent,” Kondik noted. “This report was a potentially punishing hurdle for Obama, and he’s now past it no worse for wear.”

--Justin Sink contributed to this report.