Are new unemployment figures a boost for Obama?

Unemployment in the US has fallen to 8.3 percent, the lowest level since February 2009. It looks like good news for President Obama, but Republicans aren't buying it. And there are other political and economic trends that should give the White House pause.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Barack Obama talks about the economy at Fire Station Number Five in Arlington, Virginia, Friday February 3, 2012. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that day that the US unemployment rate had fallen to 8.3 percent.

Friday’s good news on the economy – an unemployment rate that dropped to 8.3 percent in January as the economy added 243,000 jobs – might have caused the White House staff to do cartwheels. If you’re going to get blamed when things are rough, why not celebrate when they go well?

But that would have been behind closed doors, and the official response was more measured.

“These numbers will go up and down in the coming months, and there's still far too many Americans who need a job or need a job that pays better than the one they have now,” President Obama said. “But the economy is growing stronger.”

Came the quick retort from Mitt Romney, front-runner in the GOP race to try and unseat Obama: “Not so fast, Mr. President. This is the 36th straight month with unemployment above the red line your own administration drew. The real unemployment rate is over 15 percent. Mr. President, America has also had enough of your kind of help.”

(Romney’s “real unemployment rate over 15 percent” apparently includes the underemployed and those who’ve gotten discouraged and stopped looking.)

So the political question is: How much can Obama be credited with what looks to be an economic turnaround – if indeed that’s what we’re seeing?

On ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, Larry Summers, Obama's former economic adviser who served as Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, put a positive spin on the new employment figures.

“Unlike many of the favorable past reports, if you look beneath the surface of this one, almost every indicator within it is favorable,” he said. “The growth is mostly from the private sector. The alternative survey, the household survey, suggested 500,000 or more jobs were created. The revisions of past months were favorable. People are working a longer week. Paychecks are going up. The number of vacancies, firms looking for work, are going up.”

Blogging in the New Yorker, John Cassidy points out that if January’s rate of hiring continues, within a few months the jobless rate will drop below 7.8 per cent – where it stood when Obama took office.

“At that point, it will be tough for Mitt Romney to stand up and say the President’s policies have made the recession worse,” Cassidy writes. “And it will be impossible for Republicans to deny that things are getting better.”

Republican congressional leaders don’t deny that the employment situation is improving. They just think it would be better if they were in charge – or at least if Obama would urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to take up the jobs bills that have passed in the House with bipartisan support.

Political prognosticators say the improving employment news gave a bump to Obama’s standing in the 2012 presidential race.

The Intrade prediction market now gives him a 57 percent chance of being re-elected. Romney has a 38 percent chance of preventing that, according to Intrade.

“While a month of 250,000 jobs added isn’t sufficient to get the president re-elected, it was necessary,” writes Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics. "We should realize that this isn’t exactly the 1.1 million jobs added in September 1983, but it is absolutely an important first step for Obama to get back into the 2012 race.”

Still, in a mock election Obama leads Romney by a scant 2.2 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls.

And in an article titled “Why Obama should be worried,” Jim Vandehei at Politico warns against “Pollyanna punditry.”

“There are a bunch of real-time numbers coming in that tell a much different tale,” he writes.

“There’s a new Congressional Budget Office report that shows unemployment likely to climb to nearly 9 percent by the election, there’s polling data showing Obama tied or trailing Mitt Romney in the most important swing states (and doing only marginally better against Ron Paul), and there is mounting evidence that the assumption of a decisive Obama fundraising advantage for the fall might be flat wrong,” Vandehei writes.

Over at Gallup, the polling organization reports that in just ten states and the District of Columbia do a majority of those surveyed approve of the job Obama is doing, according to monthly tracking data through 2011.

So if the White House gained a little spring in its step from the latest job figures, it needs to focus on other trends as well.

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