The U.S. economy is back on solid ground six years after the Great Recession, new data showed Friday, but President Obama and other Democrats are struggling to convince voters ahead of the midterm elections that they deserve the credit for the rebound.
The government reported that the unemployment rate dropped to 5.9 percent in September, the lowest level since the dark days of the 2008 financial crisis. Job growth surged to 248,000 in what was the final snapshot of the nation’s labor market before voters head to the polls in November.
Obama on Friday seized on the numbers, pleading with the country to reward him and fellow Democrats for policies they say turned around the economy — something, polls show, voters have been reluctant to do.
“This progress we’ve been making, it’s been hard, it goes in fits and starts, it’s not always been perfectly smooth or as fast as we want,” Obama said in Princeton, Ind., during a two-day economic tour. “But it is real.”
“President Obama inherited a tough economy, no doubt. But his economic leadership has held our economic recovery back during the last five years,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), chairman of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, said. “He can spin it as much as he likes, but the worst recovery of President Obama’s life is his own.”
The midterm elections at one point appeared likely to be fought on the economy and health care. But the public’s attention has been diverted by the escalation in international tensions, from Ukraine to the Middle East, along with domestic controversies such as the influx of migrant youth and the protests after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Democrats have pressed Obama to return to touting the economy’s progress, as he started to do over the summer before international events began dominating the headlines.
“Whether it’s addressing his constituency on things they most care about or whether it’s helping us in the midterm elections, the economy is the right thing to talk about,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. “I know the president has had a lot of other things on his plate, but to keep the economy front and center is where America is at.”
Democrats’ concerns are understandable. The decline in the unemployment rate and the strength in hiring are among the strongest indications that the country is finally escaping the long shadow of the Great Recession. But Obama and Democrats have lost ground on the economy as an issue — even though they have traditionally polled well on it.
About two-thirds of the 1,000 likely registered voters surveyed in a recent George Washington University poll said their economic situations stagnated or worsened over the past four years. Nearly half of those polled said they had more confidence in Republicans to find solutions, compared with just 42 percent who trusted Democrats.
“The real problem is that most people don’t feel the economy is getting better, regardless of what the jobs report said,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster at North Star Opinion Research. “They don’t perceive that the recovery is anywhere close to those we’ve experienced after past recessions.”
Democrats acknowledge the challenges Obama and lawmakers face in trying, just over a month before the vote, to shift attention back to the economy.
“Reality intrudes here on the best-laid plans,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. “History shows that the party in power does get credit [for an improving economy]. Enough credit to overcome everything else? Well, not necessarily in every case.”
Obama took a stab at getting voters’ attention in several speeches this week.
At a steel plant in Princeton, Ind., on Friday, he ticked off improvements that have come under his watch: reduced unemployment, increased energy production and slowing health-care costs. As he did during similar remarks a day earlier at Northwestern University, Obama tied many of his administration’s signature issues, including health care and education, to the economy.
Standing in front of massive rolls of steel on National Manufacturing Day, Obama cited gains in the manufacturing economy and reiterated a theme that he hammered on this summer — that many of those gains occurred because of steps his administration took during the early parts of the recession, such as the bailout of the auto industry.
Obama highlighted the 10.3 million jobs created since 2010, representing the longest stretch of private-sector job growth in history.
But for much of the country, the picture is not so clear. Many are not feeling the economy’s gains in their wallets, making the improvements difficult to translate to midterm voters whose financial realities don’t line up with Obama’s assertions.
Economic growth has been choppy, inflation is unusually low and wages have barely budged. About 3 million people had been out of work for at least six months in September, and the number of people involuntarily working part time is unusually high. The size of the nation’s labor force edged down to 62.7 percent.
That leaves the White House to play both offense and defense at the same time, trying to tout the country’s economic progress while acknowledging its shortcomings.
“There is a lot of good stuff happening in the economy right now, but what we all know is there are still some challenges,” Obama said.
Republicans have countered Obama’s message by highlighting how much farther the recovery needs to travel to recoup the losses from the recession.
Earlier this week, Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee issued a report stacked with charts showing the decline in the size of the nation’s workforce, the high level of part-time work and the drop in median family income after adjusting for inflation.
Zezima reported from Indiana. David Nakamura contributed to this report.