With two consecutive months of dismal job growth amid rising unemployment -- and just five months until Americans go to the polls to choose their next president -- the Obama administration is on the clock to show it indeed can “put Americans back to work.”
That reality was underscored Friday by Labor Department reports that showed the jobless rate ticked upward in May to 8.2 percent, from 8.1 percent, and that virtually stagnant economic growth created only 69,000 new jobs -- the fewest in a year.
The White House and Obama were quick to defend the numbers, saying -- as they have since taking office in 2008 -- the problems were inherited.
“We’re still fighting our way back,” the president said during a campaign stop at a Honeywell facility in Golden Valley, Minn. “Our economy is still facing serious head winds.”
The president attributes the sluggish growth over the past few months in part to gas prices and the European debt crisis.
He also cast some blame on Congress for failing to pass his jobs proposal that includes income tax increases. His comments followed those of Alan Kruger, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, who gave a similar account.
“Problems in the job market were long in the making and will not be solved overnight,” Kruger said on the White House blog. “The economy lost jobs for 25 straight months beginning in February 2008, and over 8 million jobs were lost as a result of the Great Recession. We are still fighting back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
But Republican leaders and the president’s GOP challenger Mitt Romney sounded as if they had heard the explanation before.
"Another month of disappointing job gains,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.” It's pretty clear that the American people are hurting, small businesses continue to avert hiring any additional people, and it's clear that the policies that we've seen are not working."
Romney called the report "devastating news for American workers and American families.”
“It is now clear to everyone that President Obama’s policies have failed to achieve their goals and that the Obama economy is crushing America’s middle class,” he said.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the Obama-Romney race has always been about the economy, but the recent reports again push social issues into the background.”
“It’s more so now,” he said. “And both sides know it.”
Sabato also suggested the president’s timetable in now more a stopwatch than calendar.
“He’s got five more” monthly unemployment reports, he said. “That’s it. To get elected the president has to show improvement. Period.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined Democrats in pointing out highlighting in the slow recovery, including 27 months of adding jobs. But she acknowledged more needs to be done and used the report, like Obama, to urge Congress to act, particularly on a transportation bill in conference committee.
“With today’s jobs report it is clear we have work to do,” she said. “It’s clear one way we can help is to pass the (bipartisan) transportation bill.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer also targeted the GOP.
“While the president and Democrats in Congress have been promoting a jobs-first agenda to provide certainty to American businesses and workers, Republicans continue to avoid addressing serious job creation in favor of ideological bills,” said Hoyer, D-Md.
The unemployment rate for April fell to 8.1 percent, from 8.2 percent. But it was not good news because the percentage change was really an indication that many Americans had stopped looking for work and were no longer being counted in the unemployment rolls. In addition, the 115,000 payroll jobs added was small compared to numbers earlier in the year.
“I don’t see how you get re-elected with numbers like those,” Sabato said.