For Romney, any number above 8 percent proved he was right and Obama was wrong.
Obama had promised, Romney told audiences repeatedly, never to let unemployment get that high. Instead, Romney said, the jobless rate blew past 8 percent and got stuck there.
The 0.3 percent dip in unemployment in September, from 8.1 to 7.8 percent, deprived Romney of one of his central campaign themes.
It was enough to put him on the defensive just as he was basking in the afterglow of his debate performance Wednesday, the best moment of his campaign against Obama so far. It wasn’t because the figures showed a healthy economy — they didn’t — but because the economy had crossed a threshold that Romney had implied it would never cross without him.
“We can do better,” Romney said Friday at a rally in the Virginia coal-country town of Abingdon. It was the same argument he has used throughout the campaign, but without the number he’d always used to hammer it home. “There were fewer new jobs created this month than last month. And the unemployment rate . . . has come down very, very slowly, but it’s come down nonetheless.”
The political importance of the 8 percent threshold was driven home, in a backhanded way, by a few conservatives who floated a conspiracy theory that Friday’s dip had been engineered to give Obama a boost.
Former General Electric chief executive Jack Welch wrote on Twitter: “these Chicago guys will do anything. can’t debate so change numbers.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the data were worked out the same way as always, with no interference. And Welch later conceded that he had no evidence of a conspiracy.
There is no special economic magic to 8 percent. A truly healthy economy, experts say, would have a rate far lower.
“Eight is bad, 7.9 is bad, 8.1 is bad,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and an adviser to GOP nominee John McCain in 2008. “We want to be at six.”
But the figure assumed its political significance in early 2009, before Obama had taken office, in a report written by a pair of his advisers, Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein. That report projected, with caveats, that if Congress passed a large stimulus package, unemployment would peak at 8 percent.
The stimulus passed. But the rate kept going up.
It reached 10 percent in October 2009 and then fell only slowly, despite the billions pouring in from the government. Before last month, the rate had hovered between 8.3 and 8.1 percent. Obama’s advisers later said they had not understood the depth of the country’s economic troubles when they made their projection.