A sobering economic snapshot intensified the presidential campaign on Friday as President Barack Obama rolled through two vote-rich battleground states and Republican Mitt Romney fended off conservative complaints about his plan for winning.
A stand-pat jobless report that left the unemployment rate unchanged at 8.2 percent set a new standard from which to judge the president and for Romney to attempt to exploit with Election Day only four months away
“This kick in the gut has got to end,” Romney told reporters Friday morning.
Obama was in Ohio and Pennsylvania, hotly contested battlegrounds whose modest economic gains he hoped to leverage into a case for his re-election.
The jobs report showed only 80,000 jobs created in June, a disappointing number that comes amid growing public anxiety about the economy and with Election Day just four months away.
Alan Krueger, the chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, said the jobs report shows the economy is continuing to heal with the private sector adding jobs for 28 straight months. But the 80,000 net jobs created are not enough to keep up with population growth and Krueger conceded more must be done to recover from the financial crisis and the recession.
Romney was biting in his criticism of Obama.
“American families are struggling; there’s a lot of misery in America today,” he said, interrupting his vacation in New Hampshire to react to the jobs numbers. “The president’s policies have not gotten America working again. And the president is going to have to stand up and take responsibility for it.”
Obama began the day going after votes over a little eggs and grits, taking up a stool at Ann’s Place, a local restaurant. He was to address the news jobs numbers later in the morning at a school event in Ohio.
Romney was at his lake-side vacation home amid growing anxiety among conservatives that he was not being aggressive enough and was squandering his opportunity to win in November. Republicans worry that Obama’s attacks against Romney are taking their toll on the challenger and right-leaning leaders in business and the media say he is presenting a muddled case for his presidency despite a weak economy.
“I don’t say much to critics,” Romney told reporters, noting that he has issued a 59-point economic plan to counter the president.
On his tour, Obama was promoting policies that he says have helped states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, particularly the government bailout of Chrysler and General Motors.
“We saved an auto industry. That saved hundreds of thousands of jobs here in Ohio,” Obama said in an interview with NBC affiliate WLWT in Cincinnati that was aired Friday. “We passed a health care law that’s going to mean security for Ohioans.”
Obama questioned Romney’s motives on health care in the same interview, accusing his rival of caving under pressure from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh for saying that requiring all Americans to buy health insurance amounts to a tax.
Romney said Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled the requirement to buy health insurance was a tax, which amounted to a shift in his position. Earlier in the week, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney viewed the mandate as a penalty, a fee or a fine — not a tax.
“So the question becomes, are you doing that because of politics?” Obama said. “Are you abandoning a principle that you fought for, for six years simply because you’re getting pressure for two days from Rush Limbaugh or some critics in Washington?”
The jobless numbers promised to command attention Friday and determine the nature of the political debate. The unemployment and hiring figures provide monthly milestones with which to measure the human toll of the weak economic recovery.
Republicans were quick to pounce on the report, declaring that Obama’s policies had failed.
“The president bet on a failed ‘stimulus’ spending binge that led to 41 months of unemployment above 8 percent,” House Speaker John Boehner said Friday. “He bet on a government takeover of health care that’s driving up costs and making it harder for small businesses to hire.”
Democrats sought to capitalize on the jobs created, which at 80,000 is not enough to keep up with population growth but sustains a string of months where the private sector has increased hiring.
“With the private sector continuing to create jobs for the twenty-eighth consecutive month, our economic recovery continues to push forward,” Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second ranking Democrat in the House, said in a statement.
Friday’s jobless report comes as the public’s confidence about the economy is already wavering. The percentage of people in an Associated Press-GfK poll last month that said the economy got better in the past month fell below 20 percent for the first time since fall. And few said they expected much improvement in the unemployment rate in the coming year.
Romney has not been able to exploit that sentiment fully. In national polls, the president either retains a slight edge or is in a statistical tie with his challenger.
The economic data continues to provide a mixed picture of the recovery. Weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped last week to the lowest number since the week of May 19. At the same time, retailers recorded tepid sales in June. And a report last week said U.S. manufacturing shrank in June for the first time in nearly three years, undermining a top Obama talking point.
In selecting Ohio and Pennsylvania for his two-day bus tour, Obama began a more retail-oriented phase of his campaign in two battleground states that have had better economic experiences than other parts of the country. Both states had unemployment rates of 7.3 percent in May, well below the national average of 8.2 percent.
Friday’s schedule includes a stop at an elementary school in Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown, followed by a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Kicking off his two-state, 250-mile bus tour in Maumee in the northern Ohio suburbs, Obama said he “refused to turn my back on communities like this one.”
Romney, from his family lake home in New Hampshire, criticized Obama for offering “no new answers” on the economy.
Quick to counter Obama’s message, Republicans dispatched former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, two potential vice presidential nominees, to argue Romney’s case in some of the same towns Obama was visiting.
“We should all bet on the country, but we shouldn’t double down on Barack Obama,” Pawlenty said Thursday. “He’s had his chance. It’s not working.”