FAIRFAX, Va.—President Barack Obama on Friday welcomed word that the unemployment rate dropped from 8.1 to 7.8 percent in September as vindication of his economic policies. Republican challenger Mitt Romney's first statement countered that "this is not what a real recovery looks like."
"This morning, we found out that the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since I took office," Obama told a rowdy crowd of about 2,000 cheering supporters at George Mason University here. "More Americans entered the workforce, more people are getting jobs.
"Every month reminds us that we've still got too many of our friends and neighbors who are looking for work, and there are too many middle-class families struggling to pay the bills," Obama said. "But today's news certainly is not an excuse to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points. It's a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now."
The Labor Department report noted that the unemployment rate slipped below 8 percent for the first time in about four years. The number of jobless Americans fell to 12.1 million, the fewest since January 2009, when Obama took office.
The report—the second-to-last monthly jobs report before Election Day—provided an undeniable psychological boost to Obama and Democrats. But its political effects, notably in battleground states that frequently have unemployment rates lower than the national average, were not immediately clear.
"We've made too much progress to return to the policies that led to the crisis in the first place. I can't allow that to happen, I won't allow that to happen, and that is why I'm running for a second term as president of the United States," Obama said.
The economy created 114,000 jobs in September, said the department, which also revised upward the number of jobs added in July and August by 86,000. The figures paint a picture of a still-weak recovery from the global economic meltdown of 2007-2008, with stubbornly high unemployment and continued woes in the housing sector. And while Democrats highlighted that the economy was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs per month when Obama took office, Republicans led by Romney highlighted anemic growth.
Campaigning in Abingdon, Va., on Friday, Romney waited nearly 10 minutes into his rally to mention the jobs report. The former Massachusetts governor omitted a line that has been in his stump speech for months, in which he has pointed out the exact number of months the unemployment rate has been above 8 percent, and acknowledged that the jobless rate has "come down very slowly, but it's come down nonetheless."
Still, Romney argued that the country isn't where it should be under Obama. "There were fewer jobs created this month than last month," Romney said.
And he argued the latest numbers didn't take into account the number of people who have simply dropped out of the workforce. (While that has been the case in the past, as when the jobless rate slipped from 8.3 to 8.1 percent in August, it was not the case in Friday's drop.)
"The reason it's come down this year is primarily due to the fact that more and more people have stopped looking for work," the GOP candidate said at an outdoor rally with coal workers. "It looks like unemployment is getting better, but the truth is, if the same share of people were participating in the workforce today as on the day that President Obama got elected, why, our unemployment rate would be around 11 percent.
"That's the real reality of what is happening out there," Romney added. "This can't go on. ... 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 workforce, but because we are creating more jobs. I will create more jobs and get America working again."
Republican House Speaker John Boehner offered a similar criticism.
"While there is positive news in today's report, job creation is far too slow and the unemployment rate is far too high," he said. (By itself, that sentence would not be out of place in the administration's response.)
Boehner also pointed to a report, crafted by Obama aides two weeks before he took office, that forecast 5.6 percent unemployment by now if Congress approved a roughly $775 billion stimulus package. (The final package, approved by lawmakers a few months later, ran about $800 billion.)
"Instead, after four years of spending, taxing and red tape, millions of Americans remain jobless, underemployed or have simply given up looking for work," the speaker said.
"We know that the Republicans are going to come up with a million different ways to spin progress in an unflattering way," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded. "But the fact is that we've come too far to go back to the failed policies that Mitt Romney and Speaker Boehner are advocating.
"The president himself thinks we need to do more. That's why we need to move forward on passing the American Jobs Act," she added, referring to Obama's economic growth package, which has stalled in Congress.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that the jobs figures proved Obama's policies "are working to move our economy forward."
"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," Reid said in a statement.
"These positive numbers are a clear sign that President Obama's recovery policies are working, and the American people need his leadership now more than ever," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer agreed. "However, we cannot be satisfied by these gains alone, and we must do more."
"While today's unemployment report offered some encouraging news, it simply isn't good enough. 7.8% unemployment should not be cause for celebration," Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement. "High unemployment should not be the new normal."
The White House's first public response was cautious. Obama spoke at a rally here before heading to another campaign event in Ohio, which drew 9,000 people despite a steady rain. Both candidates see these two states as pivotal battlegrounds where the election could be decided.
But while the jobs report painted a mixed picture with uncertain political ramifications, some conservatives sounded downright panicked.
Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch tweeted his suspicion that the Labor Department had doctored the numbers because of Obama's sluggish debate performance on Wednesday.
"Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers," Welch tweeted, without providing any evidence for a claim quickly dismissed by experts—including Republicans—as lunacy.
"No serious person would question the integrity of the Bureau of Labor Statistics," Alan Krueger, chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, told Bloomberg. "These numbers are put together by career employees who use the same process every month. I think those comments are irresponsible."
At the Ohio event Obama also reprised his attack on Romney's vow, during their first debate faceoff on Wednesday, to cut government aid to PBS.
"For all you moms and kids out there, don't worry: Someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird. Rounding him up. Elmo has got to watch out, too," Obama said. "Gov. Romney plans to let Wall Street run wild again, but he's going to bring down the hammer on 'Sesame Street.'"
While Obama was widely seen as the loser on Wednesday, his campaign has been fighting to make that the defining line of the debate. A campaign aide noted that the entertainment media, which has millions of viewers and readers, really noted only Romney's "Big Bird" comment—and both politicians' comments about the Obamas' wedding anniversary. And at a time when Obama has been courting women voters to widen his "gender-gap" advantage over Romney, the president's campaign sees a special political value to an issue that appeals to moms.
"Everybody loves Big Bird," the aide said.