Weak jobs data threw President Barack Obama on the defensive Friday, as Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney told America’s middle class it did not have to put up with such misery.
Eagerly awaited monthly government figures made for grim reading, showing that only 80,000 jobs were created in June, well short of the rate Obama needs to swiftly cut the 8.2 percent unemployment rate before November’s election.
The Labor Department report may interrupt several weeks of political momentum for Obama, and allow his foe Romney to shift the debate away from Democratic attacks on his past as a venture capitalist and back to the president’s record.
“There is a lot of misery in America today, and these numbers understate what people are feeling, and the amount of pain which is occurring in middle class America,” Romney said in New Hampshire, where he is on vacation.
The president’s policies “have clearly not been successful in re-igniting this economy, in putting people back to work,” Romney said.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. America can do better, and this kick in the gut has got to end.”
Obama, on the second day of a bus tour positioning him as a champion of the middle class, tried to prevent the jobs report, which follows weaker numbers on manufacturing and retail sales, from suffocating his rationale for reelection.
“It’s still tough out there,” Obama said at a school in Poland, Ohio, but took credit for saving the economy from a depression and argued Romney’s policies would risk creating the conditions that caused the crisis.
He chose to look on the bright side of the jobs report, saying it was a “step in the right direction,” but said more work remained to be done, though he noted businesses had created 4.4 million new jobs over the past 28 months.
Obama said the jobs figures were “a step in the right direction” but added: “we can’t be satisfied,” as Republicans branded him an economic failure.
The data, which makes it unlikely that unemployment will dip below the psychological 8.0 percent level before November, jolted Obama on the second day of a “Betting on America” bus tour in swing states Ohio and Pennsylvania.
It offered an opening for Romney, who contends that his lucrative business career equips him with unique understanding of the economy and the policies needed to create jobs.
“This is a time for America to choose whether they want more of the same; whether unemployment above eight percent month after month after month is satisfactory or not,” Romney said.
The president came across as defiant, animated and combative, in a performance apparently designed to show him as undeterred by tough economic news and determined to fight hard right up until the election.
Obama had earlier put on a brave face, stopping his imposing black bus in Ohio to share an eggs and bacon breakfast with tire workers, to highlight his decision in 2009 to impose tariffs on Chinese tire imports.
No president for 70 years has won reelection with the national unemployment rate above 7.4 percent, and analysts will be watching to see whether the jobs data tightens the presidential race, in which Obama is narrowly ahead.
But the president is better placed than Romney on other issues like foreign policy, health care and on who cares most about the middle class. He is also more popular with key voting blocs such as Hispanics and women.
Obama mentioned the jobs data briefly in a wider speech that included a staunch defense of his unpopular health care law — which was declared constitutional in a surprise Supreme Court ruling last week.
He also accused Romney of a reversal on health care, saying he implemented a penalty for people who refuse to buy health insurance when he was a governor but says a similar plan by Obama is a tax he would reverse.
“The guy I’m running against tried this in Massachusetts and it’s working just fine… even though now he denies it,” Obama said.