CLEVELAND, Ohio — A relieved Barack Obama basked Saturday in shock good news as unemployment dipped below eight percent to the lowest point of his presidency, stealing headlines from Mitt Romney’s thumping debate win.
Unexpected data showing the jobless rate fell to 7.8 percent electrified Obama’s re-election campaign, which was knocked back by the president’s grim performance in Wednesday’s first presidential debate.
“Today, I believe that as a nation we are moving forward again,” said Obama who was pumped up at a rowdy rally in Virginia, in a marked contrast to his listless performance in his clash with Romney.
The Republican challenger, banking on a turnaround in the polls after the debate in Denver, immediately claimed the Obama economy was not in a “real recovery”, but the Labor Department figures robbed the attack of its previous potency.
“If not for all the people who have simply dropped out of the labor force, the real unemployment rate would be closer to 11 percent,” Romney said as he too stumped for votes in the battleground state of Virginia.
Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan warned that Americans should not settle for the “new normal” of diminished economic expectations under Obama.
The political world meanwhile debated whether the jobs data was an “October Surprise” style event that will come to be seen as a moment the election, now just a month away on November 6, turned in Obama’s favor.
The Democratic incumbent, who has come to dread the monthly drumbeat of grim jobs data as the sluggish recovery haunted his presidency, also seemed to enjoy firing a rebuke at Romney’s downbeat reaction to the figures.
“Today’s news certainly is not an excuse to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points. It is a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now,” Obama said.
“We have made too much progress to return to the policies that led to the crisis in the first place. I can’t allow that to happen. I won’t allow that to happen,” he added before heading off to a second rally in swing state Ohio.
“After losing about 800,000 jobs a month when I took office, our businesses have now added 5.2 million new jobs over the past two and a half years.”
Some Republican sympathizers griped that the sudden three-tenths of a percentage point drop in unemployment in September, was strangely convenient given the proximity of the election.
“Unbelievable jobs numbers.. these Chicago guys will do anything.. can’t debate, so change numbers,” tweeted Jack Welch, the former chief executive of industrial giant General Electric.
The numbers “don’t smell right when you think about where the economy is right now,” he later told Fox News, defending his tweet.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the allegations “utter nonsense” and pointed out that the data is collated by professional civil servants at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, not political appointees.
No president since World War II has won re-election with the unemployment rate above 7.4 percent, so Friday’s figures and a flurry of favorable news coverage were greeted with delight within the West Wing of the White House.
With only one more monthly jobs report due before the election, Obama can argue the economy is trending the right way, and may be able to blunt Romney’s attacks in their next debate on October 16.
There was still an air of mystery cloaking Obama’s muted showing at the Denver debate, although incumbent presidents softened by years of deference, have sometimes struggled in their first head-on clash with their rival.
The New Yorker magazine released its new cover showing Romney debating an empty podium, behind which was an empty chair, similar to the one Clint Eastwood addressed, as a placeholder for Obama, during his notorious appearance at the Republican National Convention in August.
Meanwhile, Romney was in Tampa, Florida, where he visited La Teresita, a popular family-owned restaurant well known for its Cuban dishes.
Romney and his wife Ann went from table to table, shaking hands and saying hello to patrons.
When one of the diners asked the Romneys about the purpose of the visit, the candidate told him: “We’re going to get some food here.”
The Romneys left carrying a plastic bag with several food containers and a couple of additional boxes of food.
The La Teresita staff did not allow the Republican nominee to pay for the food, but the woman who gave the Romneys their order said that the White House hopeful left a cash tip for the restaurant staff.