WASHINGTON – Jostling for an advantage on the economy, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Friday set a target of 4 percent for the nation's unemployment rate, while President Barack Obama proclaimed it "good news" that the U.S. economy is consistently adding jobs.
Each presidential rival used a fresh jobs report to bolster his own campaign's economic narrative. The Labor Department gave mixed results for April, saying the economy added 115,000 jobs, fewer than expected, and the unemployment rate dipped slightly to 8.1 percent, mostly because more people gave up looking for work. People not looking for jobs are not counted as unemployed
Obama called the report another sign of slow but steady progress in pulling the economy out of the depths of recession. But Romney said the new figures bolstered his case that the president's policies have not worked fast enough for the millions of Americans still looking for work.
"Anything over 4 percent is not cause for celebration," Romney said as he campaigned in Pittsburgh.
Earlier Friday, Romney said the economy should be adding about 500,000 jobs a month, more than four times the April figures. "This is way, way, way off from what should be happening in a normal recovery," Romney said.
If Romney wins the White House, his 4 percent unemployment target could come back to haunt him. The Obama team learned the hard way to avoid setting specific goals after advisers predicted the jobless rate would fall below 8 percent if Congress passed the president's massive economic stimulus bill.
Congress acted, but the unemployment rate still spiked and has yet to fall below 8 percent.
The last time the unemployment rate fell to 4 percent or lower was in 2000, the last year of Bill Clinton's presidency. The jobless rate fell to 3.8 percent in April of that year. President George W. Bush saw unemployment fluctuate during his presidency from 4.2 percent at the start of his administration to above 7 percent at its end.
Economists surveyed by the Associated Press said hiring should be sufficient to push the unemployment rate below 8 percent by Election Day. The 32 economists surveyed by the AP see steady job gains averaging 177,000 a month for the rest of this year. That should be enough to lower the unemployment rate to 7.9 percent by November.
The pressing question for the president's re-election team is whether those metrics will be good enough for Obama.
Speaking to high school students in Virginia Friday morning, Obama said the trend was heading in the right direction, with the economy having added more than one million jobs in the past six months. But, careful not to turn a deaf ear to the millions of Americans still out of work, Obama acknowledged the recovery is far from over.
"If we're going to recover all the jobs that were lost during the recession, and if we're going to build a secure economy that strengthens the middle class, then we're going to have to do more," Obama said.
Associated Press reporters Kasie Hunt in Pittsburgh and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.