This gives new resonance to the campaign of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
Three months of lacklustre to dismal growth and an uptick in joblessness to 8.2% in May have forced Obama on the defensive after a winter when the job trends were in his favor. It also heightened White House anxiety over global threats to US economic growth.
The economy, struggling to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression, has had to fend off a number of external pressures, from high oil prices to natural disasters and, now, economic troubles in Europe and a weakening economy in China.
The unemployment numbers, while imprecise and typically a lagging indicator of economic performance, are nevertheless an undeniable marker of the human cost of a weak economy.
No US president since the Great Depression has sought re-election with unemployment as high as it is now and past incumbents have lost when the rate was on the rise.
The economy, Obama conceded Friday, “is not growing as fast as we want it to.”
Taking a harsher tone, Romney declared that the country appeared to be “moving backward.” He sought to drive home a political point from the nation’s first increase in joblessness in almost a year.
Confronted by Friday’s report of a feeble 69 000 new jobs, Obama vigorously renewed his demand that Congress step up and enact some of his jobs proposals. He said Republicans had been driven in part by a focus to “beat Obama” and he hoped winning a second term would change that mentality.
“My hope, my expectation is that after the election, now that it turns out the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some co-operation again,” Obama said.
Obama later told donors at a Minneapolis fundraiser that the last four years had been “as tough a period in our country’s history as anything in our lifetimes, certainly since the 1930s.” He said his administration had tried to make “dogged progress” but acknowledged “we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Calling the Eurozone’s debt crisis a “shadow” hanging over the US economy, Obama made his most urgent plea yet for measures that he said would “serve as a buffer in case the situation in Europe gets any worse.”
The jobs numbers, issued early every month, have become the year’s dominant economic barometer, a baseline from which to gauge Obama’s and Romney’s political fortunes in an election that rides on the pace of a post-recession recovery.
Romney, responding to the first report since he clinched the Republican presidential nomination, called the figures “devastating news.”
In an interview Friday with CNBC, Romney said that Obama’s policies and his handling of the economy had “been dealt a harsh indictment.”
Obama was in Minnesota to push his proposal to expand job opportunities for veterans and to raise money for his campaign.
He said private business has created more than 4-million jobs over the past 27 months, but, he added, “as we learned in today’s jobs report, we’re still not creating them as fast as we want.”
Better days ahead
Still, he said, “we will come back stronger; we do have better days ahead.”
May’s 69 000 new jobs and downward adjustments for March and April mean the economy has averaged just 73 000 jobs a month over the past two months. That’s half of what’s needed simply to keep up with population growth and is a dramatic drop from the 226 000 jobs created per month in the January-March quarter.
May’s 8.2% jobless rate, the first increase in 11 months, reflected more people coming back into the job force, but that was a thin silver lining to an otherwise discouraging report.
The economy is central to each candidate’s argument – Obama wants it to be a choice between his and Romney’s economic visions; Romney wants it to be referendum on Obama’s economic policies.
Obama is counting on an unemployment trajectory that has fallen from a high of 10% in October 2009. The president likes to point to the 3.8 million jobs created since he became president, though 12.5 million people remain unemployed. He highlights the resurgence of the auto industry following government bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors.
Friday’s report seriously dampens Obama’s message, though the May numbers may end up doing more damage to Obama’s short-term political standing than to the economy long-term.
The US has experienced periods of jobs slowdown for the past three years, only to bounce back. Last year, from May to August, job growth averaged 80 000 a month and from June through September of 2010, the average was 76,000.
Economists surveyed by The Associated Press expect growth to pick up this year, though not enough to lower unemployment much.
Eager to draw attention to his challenger, Obama has mounted a step-by-step assault on Romney’s economic record, from his days as a venture capitalist to his tenure as Massachusetts governor from 2003-2007.
The Obama campaign released a new online video Friday that features several of Romney’s former rivals for the Republican nomination criticising Romney’s economic record.
Romney has emphasised his background in private business to argue that he’s qualified to lead a nation in economic turmoil.
On Friday, his campaign released a new television ad promising “a better day” and declaring that a Romney presidency would focus from the start on the economy and the federal deficit, unleash US energy resources and stand up to China on trade. “President Romney’s leadership puts jobs first,” the ad states.