Obama, Romney, clash on jobs report—but election effect likely muted

Olivier Knox

President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney on Friday seized on the last jobs report before Election Day to reinforce their political arguments about the economy. Neither side, however, expected that the better-than-expected news would change many minds.

In a statement, Romney said that come Tuesday the choice would be "between stagnation and prosperity."

Obama, meanwhile, in front of a rowdy crowd of cheering supporters at the Franklin County Fairgrounds in Hilliard, Ohio, said, "This morning we learned that companies hired more workers in October than at any time in the last eight months.

"We've made real progress--but we are here today because we know we've got more work to do," Obama continued. "As long as there's a single American who wants a job and can't find one, as long as there are families working harder but falling behind, as long as there's a child anywhere in this country who's languishing in poverty and barred from opportunity, our fight goes on, we've got more work to do."

Neither campaign expected the new figure to do much to change the dynamic of the race. Aides on both sides have said in recent weeks that Americans' views of the economy are essentially fixed by now, barring a dramatic change.

The Labor Department's monthly jobs report did not provide such a tectonic shift. It showed that the economy added more jobs than experts had predicted and bolstered Obama's argument that he has overseen a slow but steady recovery from the 2007-2008 global economic meltdown.

At the same time, Republicans led by Romney seized on the news to charge that the incumbent has failed to bring about sturdier growth. At the current rate, it would take years to return to pre-recession levels. And no incumbent has faced the voters with unemployment this high since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"On Tuesday, America will make a choice between stagnation and prosperity," Romney also said. "For four years, President Obama has told us that things are getting better and that we're making progress. For too many American families, those words ring hollow. We can do better."

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Non-farm payrolls added 171,000 jobs last month, beating forecasts of about 125,000. The Labor Department also revised its previous estimates of employment growth in August and September upward by 84,000 jobs.

The unemployment rate ticked up from 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent, but chiefly as a result of more Americans getting off the sidelines and looking for work (those not looking are not counted in the jobless rate). Democrats emphasized that Obama had inherited a disastrous economy from George W. Bush and reversed what had been accelerating jobs losses. Republicans noted that the unemployment rate when Obama took office was 7.8 percent.

"Today's increase in the unemployment rate is a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill," Romney added. "The jobless rate is higher than it was when President Obama took office, and there are still 23 million Americans struggling for work."

One of the political challenges for Romney was that unemployment was lower than the national average in some critical battleground states. In September, it was 7 percent in Ohio, and 5.9 percent in Virginia.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Thursday painted a mixed picture of voters' views about the economy. Fifty-four percent of likely voters expressed confidence that the economy would improve under Romney, against 47 percent for Obama. But 51 percent of those surveyed still blamed George W. Bush for the current conditions, against 36 percent for Obama. The Democrat has made tying Romney to Bush a centerpiece of his closing argument.