Job weakness shapes election tone

Catherine Rampell / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 7, 2012 at 05:00AM

PITTSBURGH — For President Barack Obama, evangelist of hope and change, it’s not easy to confront an election season with so little of either. On Friday, after the release of the third straight anemic employment report, Obama found himself on a campaign bus tour, conceding that the economy was not generating enough jobs, that the recovery was not taking hold quickly enough, and that too many Americans lacked basic financial security.

“It’s still tough out there,” Obama said to a sympathetic crowd in an elementary school gymnasium in Poland, Ohio. Later, in Pittsburgh, he said, “Too many of our friends and family members and neighbors are still out of work; too many folks still are seeing their home property values underwater.”

With few signs that the labor market will strengthen much before Election Day, Obama is honing a vocabulary to talk about the listless economy — one that emphasizes a glass-is-half-full approach to the numbers and an appeal to voters to take the long view when assessing the nation’s economic fortunes.

The president dug out the few tidbits of good news from the June report, pointing out that businesses generated 84,000 new jobs last month and 4.4 million overall since the end of the recession. Among those millions, he went on, 500,000 were in manufacturing — a relevant yardstick on a whistle-stop tour of two industrial states.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “But we can’t be satisfied because our goal was never to just keep on working to get back to where we were back in 2007.”

With Friday’s report, what looked like a blip has now become a streak. And with a gridlocked Congress unlikely to pass any additional stimulus measures before the election, the president is stuck again with an economy in stall mode.

At a campaign stop in Poland, Ohio, on Friday, Obama urged voters to take the long view and to be mindful of the economic state he inherited.

“I want to get back to a time when middle-class families and those working to get into the middle class have some basic security,” he said. “We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening over the last decade, the last 15 years.”

Mitt Romney, Obama’s presumed presidential challenger, emphasized the more recent string of weak job growth that has taken place under Obama’s leadership. “This is a time for Americans to choose whether they want more of the same,” Romney said from Wolfeboro, N.H., where he is vacationing. “It doesn’t have to be this way. America can do better. And this kick in the gut has to end.”

The recent string of weak employment growth may work to political advantage for Romney. Obama’s political team long has played down the significance of the Labor Department’s monthly report and did so again on Friday. They contend that Americans are not, and should not be, fixated on the current unemployment rate or monthly statistics. Instead, they say that Americans will take their clues on the economy from whether a friend or neighbor has recently found work or on whether the outlook is brighter in their communities.

In that calculus, the direction of the economy and voters’ perceptions count more than actual unemployment levels or one month’s statistics. And so, as it has done regularly, Obama’s team chose to note that the economy added jobs for the 28th straight month.

But the jobless rate has been above 8 percent for 41 consecutive months. And that is what Romney is emphasizing.