But Obama’s advisers reacted to the report with hard-earned caution. They have not forgotten 2010’s “Recovery Summer,” which began with a spate of presidential groundbreakings meant to highlight the healing effects of the economic stimulus bill only to have the jobless rate go up, not down.
They also are concerned about economic forecasts indicating that things could get worse before they get better. A surge in oil prices, a recession in Europe or a slowdown in China could derail the jobs recovery and, with it, Obama’s reelection hopes.
“From the president’s perspective, an acceleration of positive trends is the best he is going to get. He is not going to be able to get the nation back to full employment this year,” said Jared Bernstein, a former member of Obama’s economic team. “But, given all the false starts, you certainly can’t get unduly optimistic.”
Remarks from the White House and from Republicans were indications of how the two sides will portray the economy to the public. Obama and his aides highlighted the trend of declining unemployment. Republicans latched onto the still-high numbers of Americans out of work.
GOP strategists acknowledged that an improved labor market could complicate their most potent argument against Obama. But they pointed out that at several points in the past couple of years, the economy has seemed poised for substantial growth and then stalled.
“We have to ask ourselves, now for the third time, do we have a sustainable recovery that is organic?” said Tony Fratto, a former aide to President George W. Bush and a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, a D.C. consulting firm. “The public is skeptical of short-term economic data. It is going to take a longer period of recovery before people believe it is sustainable.”
Obama focused on the improving employment picture during a speech Friday at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“Altogether, more private-sector jobs were created in 2011 than any year since 2005,” he said. But he also acknowledged: “We have a lot more work to do.”
There are 1.7 million fewer jobs in the country now than when Obama took office, according to government data, a fact often cited in the Republican criticism of the president’s economic stewardship.
Yet employers created 200,000 jobs in December, a pace that, if maintained through the November elections, would enable Obama to say he is a net job creator as president.
“What really counts politically is the direction things are moving,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. “People care more about the direction of change than the absolute level. Optimism is up, and that is good for the incumbent.”