Jobs numbers give Obama reason to smile

An auto worker assembles parts on the 2013 Dodge Dart at the Chrysler Plant in Belvidere, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012. Sergio Marchionne, Chairman and CEO Chrysler Group, announced that Chrysler will add a third shift at the Belvidere Plant to begin production of the Dart. The unemployment rate fell for the fifth straight month after a surge of January hiring, a promising shift in the nation's outlook for job growth.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
President Obama sounded a restrained note Friday when addressing new economic numbers showing 243,000 new jobs in January, telling a group of Virginia firefighters that while the new numbers show that "the economy is growing stronger," there remain "still far too many Americans that need a job."

Behind closed doors, however, the president and his reelection team have reason to celebrate. While the numbers could still take a turn for the worse before November, the unemployment rate (now at 8.3 percent) has been falling consistently for months - and polls show Americans are starting to see signs of economic life. That's extremely good news for a president whose biggest vulnerability in his reelection bid is his stewardship of the still-fragile economy.

Economy adds 243K jobs, unemployment rate drops

Last month, amid positive economic indicators, a CBS News/New York Times surveyshowed that for the first time in nearly a year, more Americans said the economy was improving than said it was getting worse. There was still widespread pessimism over the condition and direction of the economy, but less than there had been in previous months; the percentage of Americans who said Mr. Obama had made real progress in fixing the economy, meanwhile, increased from 28 percent to 35 percent between December and January.

That isn't to say Mr. Obama is in a strong position. His overall approval rating is below 50 percent in most polls, with the average currently at 46.5 percent; his disapproval is averaging about 48 percent. It doesn't take a political scientist to understand that when a president's approval rating is lower than his disapproval rating, he's going to have a hard time getting reelected.

CBS News polling in December foundthat while 41 percent of Americans think Mr. Obama has performed his job well enough to be elected to a second term, 54 percent don't think so. In that poll, just 33 percent approved of his handling of the economy, while 60 percent disapproved.

Mr. Obama's most likely general election opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has zeroed in on the president's handling of the economy, and it will likely be his most consistent argument against Mr. Obama if Romney becomes the nominee. Like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in his response to Mr. Obama's State of the Union address, Romney has been casting the economy in dour terms.

"Last week, we learned that the economy grew only 1.7 percent in 2011, the slowest growth in a non-recession year since the end of World War II," he said in response to the new economic numbers. "As a result, the percentage of Americans in the job market continues to decline and is now at a level not seen since the early 1980s. Nearly 24 million Americans remain unemployed, underemployed, or have just stopped looking for work. Long-term unemployment remains at record levels."

Romney added that the new numbers "cannot hide the fact that President Obama's policies have prevented a true economic recovery."

Yet the reality is that the new numbers certainly give a boost to Mr. Obama's suggestion in Arlington Friday that the economy is growing and "the recovery is speeding up." And that in turn gives a boost to his reelection prospects.

Perhaps the best historical comparison to Mr. Obama's situation is that faced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who became president at the height of the Great Depression. Roosevelt was reelected in 1936 with the unemployment rate at nearly 17 percent; a staggeringly high number, but one that reflected an improvement from the 23.6 percent rate of 1932. What mattered to Americans was that Roosevelt seemed to be making things better, not that they were still relatively bad.

It's almost a sure thing that the economy will not be where most Americans want it to be by the time Election Day rolls around. But if it seems to be on the road to full recovery, they are far more likely to offer Mr. Obama another four years in office. As Nate Silver of the New York Times points out, Americans have tended when choosing a president to "give greater weight to recent job growth, discounting earlier performance when the trajectory seems positive."

That means the relatively anemic job growth of Mr. Obama's first three years matters less then what happens in 2012; Silver suggests that every time the economy generates more than 150,000 jobs in a month between now and November, Mr. Obama's reelection odds go up. That's why today's news is so good for Mr. Obama: if January's numbers reflect a trend that lasts deep into the year, it's going to be awfully hard for Romney (or any Republican) to convince a majority of Americans that Mr. Obama has failed in his stewardship of the economy. And with polls showing that Americans are more concerned with the economy than any other issue - by a wide margin - Romney simply doesn't have any other argument on which to hang a viable presidential campaign.