A dismal May jobs report is being perceived as a possible game-changer in the presidential battle between President Obama and Mitt Romney, with Republicans saying the numbers provide further proof that the economy isn’t improving.
The report showing unemployment increasing to 8.2 percent and the creation of only 69,000 jobs shook some Democrats, crystallizing their fears that the economy could tip the election in Romney’s favor in November.
“It is a little scary,” said one former White House official. “There’s no sugarcoating this one.”
Another former administration official called it an “ 'Oh, s--t' moment.”
“It’s not good,” the former official said. “I’ll say this, I’m glad it’s June and not October.”
The bleak report led to a terrible day on Wall Street, where the Dow Jones was down nearly 300 points in trading late Friday afternoon.
Romney seized on the report, calling it “devastating” in a CNBC interview and blasting Obama’s policies as ineffective.
“The president’s policies and his handling of the economy has been dealt a harsh indictment this morning,” Romney said in the interview. “Their policies have not worked; in many respects, their policies have made it harder for the economy to recover.
“And I think that’s why people are looking for a new direction,” Romney added. “The most significant thing we can do in the near term is get a new president.”
With their public remarks, Obama — along with White House officials and other top Democrats — sought to ease concerns that the economy isn’t rebounding fast enough.
The president and his aides attributed the slow growth to Europe’s debt crisis and soaring gas prices. They also noted the volatility of monthly reports, arguing it’s important not too put too much emphasis on the results of one month, whether good or bad.
In a speech in Minnesota on Friday, the president acknowledged that while the economy is “growing again … it’s not growing as fast as we want it to grow.”
“The economy still isn’t where it needs to be,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do until we are where we need to be."
But, speaking to a crowd at the Honeywell plant, Obama vowed, “We will come back stronger. We do have better days ahead.”
Reaction to the report on the left and the right highlighted the concern for Obama. The conservative Drudge Report’s lead headline, under a photo of Obama, was “Hell Day.”
In a rare occurrence, the left-leaning Huffington Post went with a similar headline on its website, coupling a picture of a frowning Obama with the headline “Jobs Report Disaster.”
Political observers argued the latest report just doesn’t jibe with Obama’s latest campaign slogan, “Forward.”
“I think it’s a real problem for the president,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “The argument was that we’re going forward, and all of a sudden it comes to a screeching halt.”
And MacManus said the timing, right before the thick of summer, couldn’t be worse for Obama. “This is kind of the last big thing people will pay attention to before they tune out during the summer doldrums,” she said. “You’d rather enter the summer on a high note than a reverse note.”
But one former White House aide said it’s a minor blip on what the White House and the campaign see as a broader picture.
“Look, we obviously wanted a bigger number, but it’s a continuum. It’s not a snapshot,” the former aide said. “But if we would’ve had today’s numbers in 2008, people would’ve been thrilled.
“Things have gotten better,” the former aide said. “That’s the bottom line.”
One prominent economist said the White House should take heart because Friday’s report didn't capture the true growth of the labor market.
"I really do think that underlying job growth is higher than this, and we're going to see that in the coming months," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics.
Vicki Needham contributed.
— Updated at 4:49 p.m.