Christmas came early for President Obama in the form of the September jobs report, all gift wrapped and tied in a bright red ribbon.
On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that total nonfarm payroll rose by 114,000 in September, about in line with economists’ predictions and really no great shakes by historical standards.
Still, it will be seen as a major victory for the president, since the unemployment rate—the true headline number—fell to 7.8%. That’s the first time it’s been below 8% since January 2009, and it puts that critically important number slightly below where it was when President Obama took office.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department upped the jobs numbers for July and August by roughly 40,000 each, so the last two months now show jobs growth of 181,000 and 142,000, respectively. Not shoot-the-lights-out great but good enough. Total employment grew by 873,000, the biggest monthly jump since 1983.
So, the economy is improving, even as China softens and Europe goes into recession. This says more about American entrepreneurs, business people and consumers than it does about government policies.
But with jobs the dominant issue in an election that’s a month away, it’s a very, very big deal politically. President Obama can now claim to be making progress on the jobs front, presiding over an economy that has produced more than five million new private sector jobs in the past 31 months. (President Bush and his team took credit for their weak jobs recovery, so why shouldn’t this president?)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney can justifiably claim that this is a subpar recovery, as he did very effectively in Wednesday night’s debate, but this undercuts him.
It also may buoy the president’s spirits as he prepares for his second debate with Romney in a couple of weeks. President Obama has been particularly tepid about defending his own record, as he was in the debate and even in his flat speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last month. Former President Bill Clinton did a much better job defending him than he did himself. He now has some pretty good numbers to back him up if he cares to use them.
As Chuck Todd pointed out on CNBC, early voting already has begun and by the time the next jobs report is issued, half the country already may have voted. So, the sub-8% headline unemployment number could have a big impact.
But an extraordinary 67 million people watched the president’s miserable performance Wednesday, and many of them will be voting early, before he has a chance to bounce back in the next debate. That will probably hurt him.
Still, on Friday, the online prediction market Intrade showed President Obama’s chances of reelection had rebounded to over 70%, after a big drop following the debate. When it comes down to it, jobs, job, jobs is the only thing that counts.