But while the new jobs numbers are among several recent indicators pointing to the recovery becoming more solid, the economic landscape less than a year before the presidential election still holds peril for the administration.
If current trends hold up into next year, Obama will be able to point to signs of economic progress. But he will still face an electorate groaning under the weight of three years of stagnant wages. And a major reason the unemployment rate fell in November was that people gave up looking for jobs and dropped out of the workforce.
Even the recent signs of economic progress may prove short-lived. In the spring of both 2010 and 2011, there was promising improvement in jobs numbers and other indicators, but that growth soon dissipated in the face of a deepening of Europe’s financial crisis, a moribund U.S. housing market and other factors.
That helps explain the subdued tone Obama took Friday in speaking about the steep drop in November joblessness. Even as he pointed proudly to 21 straight months of private-sector job creation, he used the occasion to urge Congress to extend unemployment insurance benefits and a cut to the payroll tax, both scheduled to expire in December.
“Failure to take either of these steps would be a significant blow to our economy,” Obama said, appearing with former president Bill Clinton at an event in Washington focused on making buildings more energy efficient.
A senior White House aide argued that those steps are important, specifically to serve as protection against future economic shocks.
“Congress enacted the payroll tax cut last year and extended unemployment benefits, and those two measures provided an important buffer against the rise in gasoline prices last year,” said Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “I think we continue to need support for aggregate demand in the economy, especially with head winds coming from Europe and elsewhere.”
House Republican leaders said the hiring uptick was “welcome news” but argued that Obama needs to spend more time focused on righting the economy and less time on the campaign trail.
“This morning’s unemployment rate underscores the need for the president to put a priority on addressing the country’s sustained high unemployment instead of his reelection campaign,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “By the close of business today, the House will have sent more than 20 bipartisan jobs bills to the Senate that [Majority Leader Harry] Reid continues to block. It’s time for Senate Democrats to take these bills up so we can get the 14 million Americans that are unemployed back to work.”