WASHINGTON – President Obama got an unexpected boost on Friday, with the unemployment rate dropping below 8 percent for the first time since he took office and providing him with new ammunition in his battle to convince voters that his economic policies are working, albeit slowly.
“More Americans entered the workforce, more people are getting jobs,” Obama told a boisterous crowd at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “We are moving forward again.”
Mitt Romney, whose campaign has been on the verge of giddiness in the hours after Wednesday night’s debate, focused on how slow the progress was to take hold. “This is not what a real recovery looks like,” he said, adding that the rate was coming down “very, very slowly.”
The jobs report — one of the most closely watched data points in the presidential race — came about a month before the election and 36 hours after the first presidential debate, where Romney’s performance was as widely praised as the president’s was panned. It could rob Romney of a chance to build on that momentum, and it gives Obama an opportunity to refocus the race.
“It sort of stops the bleeding a little bit from the debate; it keeps Romney from having a very quick one-two punch,” said Steve Lombardo, a Republican consultant who is not working for the Romney campaign. “It’s good news for the Obama team — being below 8 percent is something that’s meaningful . . . it was a very good day for the president.”
The unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent last month, the first time in nearly four years it was below a critical 8 percent threshold. Employers added 114,000 jobs, wages rose, and more people started looking for work. The Labor Department also revised earlier estimates for July and August, reporting that the economy added 86,000 more jobs than the preliminary figures suggested.
The jobs report, released at 8:30 a.m. Friday in what has become a monthly ritual not only for Wall Street but for political offices in Washington, showed gains in health care, transportation, and warehousing.
“Today’s news certainly is not an excuse to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points,” Obama said. “It’s a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now.”
Romney for months has focused on the 8 percent unemployment figure as his political Mendoza line, using it as a major talking point on the campaign trail.
“We’ve had 43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent,” he said in his closing statement at the debate on Wednesday night.
Romney argued on Friday that the unemployment rate was dropping because people had stopped seeking work — something that analysts in past months have pointed to as a sign that the economy was more anemic than the jobless figure by itself showed. If the same number of people were in the workforce today as there were when Obama first took office, Romney and others noted, the unemployment rate would be nearly 11 percent.
“When I’m president of the United States, that unemployment rate is going to come down not because people are giving up and dropping out of the work force but because we’re creating more jobs,” he added during a rally in Abingdon, Va.
But discouraged workers leaving the labor force was not what drove the drop in the jobless rate in September. The household survey on which the rate is based showed a substantial increase in people at work, many of them part-time. And, according to the report, while there were 802,000 people who are not looking for work any longer because they believe no jobs are available for them, that’s a decline of 235,000 from a year earlier.
House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged that “there is positive news in today’s report,” but added that “job creation is far too slow and the unemployment rate is far too high.” Senate majority leader Harry Reid countered by saying, “We still have a lot of work to do, but with unemployment dropping below 8 percent to the lowest level in four years, our economy is on the right track.”
Some quickly questioned the accuracy of the jobs numbers, saying they were skewed to help Obama’s reelection campaign. “Unbelievable jobs numbers,” Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric, wrote Friday morning on Twitter. “These Chicago guys will do anything . . . can’t debate so change numbers.”
The jobs figures can shift — at times radically — after they are updated with firmer data in subsequent months. But the next figures won’t come out until Nov. 2 – just four days before voters head to the polls. If the race is neck-and-neck, and those figures show something dramatic, it could make a difference in the race.
But most analysts think voters’ opinions about the economy are beginning to solidify, with recent trends showing modest job growth and lower unemployment figures.
“It’s not whether it’s high or low, it’s where we’re going and how fast,” said Christopher Wlezien, a professor of political science at Temple University who has studied the effect of the economy on presidential elections. “Right now, we’re not going really fast, but we’re going.”
He pointed to differences in the 1980 and the 1984 elections as a key indicator into how voters see the economy. Even though the unemployment rate was relatively similar — mid-to-low 7 percent — in 1980, the rate was rising and Ronald Reagan defeated President Carter.
Four years later, when the rate was also in the mid-7 percent range and falling, Reagan won reelection.
Obama has been facing major headwinds. For 43 straight months, the unemployment rate has been above 8 percent and peaked at 10 percent in October 2010. While it has steadily declined, no president has been reelected with a rate this high since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On Friday, Obama also continued to sharpen his attacks on Romney, going much further than he did when the two met face to face in Denver on Wednesday. He said Romney is trying to remake himself before the national electorate, adopting a more moderate tone and downplaying some of his more conservative views.
“My opponent has been trying to do a two-step and reposition,” Obama said. “And got an extreme makeover.”
Obama also brought up Romney’s comment at a fund-raiser in May that he would never get the votes from 47 percent of the population because they considered themselves victims and were too dependent on government.
“We’ve always said that real change takes time,” Obama said. “It takes more than one year or one term or even one president. It takes more than one party. It certainly can’t happen if you’re willing to write off half the nation before you even take office.”
On Thursday night, Romney sought to apologize for making those 47 percent remarks.
‘‘Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right,” Romney told Fox News. ‘‘In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.’’
Romney had previously said he was being inarticulate, but largely stood by the sentiments of his remarks.
Romney and Obama campaigned in several battleground states on Friday. Both started their days in Virginia, then Obama went to Ohio and Romney to Florida.
Romney also released three new television ads. One criticized Obama for driving up the national debt; another featured Greg Anthony, a Nevada native and former NBA player, talking about switching his vote from Obama in 2008 to Romney in 2012; and another pledged to create jobs in Ohio.
Romney planned to stay in Florida for much of the weekend, while Obama was heading to California for a fund-raiser in Los Angeles featuring singers Jon Bon Jovi, Katy Perry, and Stevie Wonder. Obama’s campaign raised $150 million in September, according to several news reports, which would make it the biggest month of this campaign.
Romney’s campaign has not released his fund-raising haul.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.