The suddenly dismal news on American jobs is a blow to President Barack Obama's re-election argument that he has been a steward of recovery. It's heightened White House anxiety over global threats to U.S. economic growth — and the president's political prospects, too.
The economy, Obama conceded Friday, "is not growing as fast as we want it to."
Taking a harsher tone, Republican rival Mitt Romney declared that the country appeared to be "moving backward." He sought to drive home a political point from the nation's first increase in joblessness in almost a year.
After a winter when the job trends were in his favor, Obama has been forced onto the defensive by three months of lackluster to dismal growth. Confronted by Friday's report of a feeble 69,000 new jobs and an uptick in unemployment to 8.2 percent in May, Obama vigorously renewed his demand that Congress step up and enact some of his jobs proposals.
Calling the Eurozone's debt crisis a "shadow" hanging over the U.S. economy, Obama made his most urgent plea yet for measures that he said would "serve as a buffer in case the situation in Europe gets any worse."
Later Friday, speaking to donors at a fundraiser, Obama said: "Europe is having a significant crisis in part because they haven't taken as many of the decisive steps as were needed to deal with the challenge, and that's weakened Asia and that means it's harder for our exports. All this stuff makes a difference in the global economy."
The jobs numbers, issued early every month, have become the year's dominant economic barometer, a baseline from which to gauge Obama's and Romney's political fortunes in an election that rides on the pace of a post-recession recovery.
Romney, responding to the first report since he effectively clinched the GOP presidential nomination, called the figures "devastating news."
In an interview Friday with CNBC, Romney said that Obama's policies and his handling of the economy had "been dealt a harsh indictment."
Obama was in Minnesota to push his proposal to expand job opportunities for veterans and to raise money for his campaign. He also raised money Friday evening in Chicago, where he was to spend a rare night in his family home.
He said private business has created more than 4 million jobs over the past 27 months, but, he added, "as we learned in today's jobs report, we're still not creating them as fast as we want."
Still, he said, "we will come back stronger; we do have better days ahead."
The economy, struggling to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression, has had to fend off a number of external pressures, from high oil prices to natural disasters and, now, economic troubles in Europe and a weakening economy in China.
The unemployment numbers, while imprecise and typically a lagging indicator of economic performance, are nevertheless an undeniable marker of the human cost of a weak economy.
May's 69,000 new jobs and downward adjustments for March and April mean the economy has averaged just 73,000 jobs a month over the past two months. That's half of what's needed simply to keep up with population growth and is a dramatic drop from the 226,000 jobs created per month in the January-March quarter.
May's 8.2 percent jobless rate, the first increase in 11 months, reflected more people coming back into the job force, but that was a thin silver-lining to an otherwise discouraging report.
No president since the Great Depression has sought re-election with unemployment as high as that, and past incumbents have lost when the rate was on the rise.
The economy is central to each candidate's argument — Obama wants it to be a choice between his and Romney's economic visions; Romney wants it to be referendum on Obama's economic policies.
Obama is counting on an unemployment trajectory that has fallen from a high of 10 percent in October 2009. The president likes to point to the 3.8 million jobs created since he became president, though 12.5 million people remain unemployed. He highlights the resurgence of the auto industry following government bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors.
Friday's report seriously dampens Obama's message, though the May numbers may end up doing more damage to Obama's short-term political standing than to the economy long-term.
The United States has experienced periods of jobs slowdown for the past three years, only to bounce back. Last year, from May to August, job growth averaged 80,000 a month and from June through September of 2010, the average was 76,000.
Hiring, housing, consumer spending and manufacturing all appear to be improving, yet they remain less than healthy. Economists surveyed by The Associated Press expect growth to pick up this year, though not enough to lower unemployment much.
Eager to draw attention to his challenger, Obama has mounted a step-by-step assault on Romney's economic record, from his days as a venture capitalist to his tenure as Massachusetts governor from 2003-2007.
The Obama campaign released a new online video Friday that features several of Romney's former Republican political foes, including Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, criticizing Romney's economic record.
But speaking to a group of donors in Chicago, Obama said the election would be close. "The reason this is going to be a close race is we've gone through a tough four years on top of a tough decade for a lot of families before that. And folks feel worn out and if you don't have a job you don't care that there have been 4 million jobs created."
Romney, now free from his primary contests, has aimed at Obama's economic policies, arguing that they have slowed the recovery, not aided it. The Republican has emphasized his own background in private business to argue that he's qualified to lead a nation in economic turmoil.
On Friday, his campaign released a new television ad promising "a better day" and declaring that a Romney presidency would focus from the start on the economy and the federal deficit, unleash U.S. energy resources and stand up to China on trade. "President Romney's leadership puts jobs first," the ad states.
Obama could face the highest unemployment rate on Election Day of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But his aides argue that the trend line is more important than the actual number. Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980 to Ronald Reagan as unemployment climbed from 6 percent to 7.5 percent. George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 as unemployment rose from 6.9 percent to 7.6 percent.
While Reagan faced an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent in October 1984, the rate had been dropping since the spring of 1983. He went on to win re-election.
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