After a dismal debate performance on Wednesday night, President Obama got the best possible economic news this morning when the federal government reported that the unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8 percent in September - just below the 8 percent rate above which no incumbent has been reelected since World War II.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said employers added 114,000 jobs in September, and it revised previous numbers to show the economy also created 86,000 more jobs in July and August than first estimated.
The overall unemployment rate is now at a 44-month low.
The numbers prompted immediate claims of revisionism and outright cheating by former General Electric chief Jack Welch, who accused the administration of cooking its books to boost the president’s reelection prospects.
“Unbelievable jobs numbers,” Welch said via Twitter. “These Chicago guys will do anything ... can’t debate so change numbers.”
The report is likely the most important data point to emerge for both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney before next month’s general election. The final report before the election will come just four days before voters go to the polls, but after the final two remaining presidential debates.
One thing it was certain to do was propel the Obama campaign as it seeks to rebound from this week’s debate, in which the president’s performance at the University of Denver was universally panned and Romney’s was lauded for pressing the administration about the sluggish pace of the nation’s economic recovery.
On Thursday, the president dispatched with the normal pleasantries at the top of his first speech of the day and unleashed a bitter critique of Romney’s debate statements.
“The man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year,” Obama told a crowd in Denver. “And that’s because he knows full well that we don’t want what he’s been selling for the last year. So, Governor Romney may dance around his positions, but if you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth.”
The Romney campaign responded with a web video highlighting key exchanges in the debate.
And Romney himself attacked the president during an unscheduled visit to a conservative conference in Denver.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country,” Romney said. “I think it was helpful to get to describe those visions. I saw the president’s vision as trickle-down government, and I don’t think that’s what America believes in.”
The outright unemployment rate and, perhaps more importantly, the unemployment trend line can prove critical in presidential elections - especially in recessionary or post-recessionary times.
No president since World War II has been reelected with the rate above 8 percent - where it has been recently - but the rate has never been that high at a previous post-war election.
The unemployment rate has been above 7 percent for four elections since 1960 - 1976, 1980, 1984, and 1992 - and incumbents have lost three out of four of them.
In 1984, President Reagan was reelected with the rate at 7.2 percent - relatively high - but it was far lower than where it had been a year-and-a-half earlier.
For Obama, the job market has been improving, sluggishly but steadily. Jobs have been added for 24 straight months. There are now 325,000 more than when the president took office.
The September gains were led by the health care industry, which added 44,000 jobs — the most since February. Transportation and warehousing also showed large gains. The revisions showed that governments actually added 63,000 jobs in July and August, compared with earlier estimates that showed losses.
Still, many of the jobs added last month were part time. The number of people with part-time jobs who wanted full-time work rose 7.5 percent to 8.6 million.