President Obama touched only briefly on the Labor Department's monthly… (Michael Reynolds, European…)
WASHINGTON — The latest jobs report means the economic shape of the presidential battlefield is now largely set, with an economy that no longer appears headed back toward recession, but in which growth continues at a sputtering pace.
Friday's report from the Labor Department said that employers nationwide had added a seasonally adjusted 163,000 new jobs in July — the most since February, but still nowhere near enough to lower the unemployment rate, which edged up to 8.3% from the 8.2% level of the last two months.
Although three more monthly jobs reports will come out before Americans elect a president — including one on the Friday before the election — evidence from previous campaigns indicates that economic news from the spring and summer has the greatest impact on voters. Most of that news, including recently released statistics on gross domestic product in the second quarter and personal income growth in June, has pointed toward an economy that is improving but still tepid.
Even now, a great majority of voters already have made up their minds between President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. By fall, as the remaining voters make their choices, the din of the campaigns, the presidential debates and whatever other news develops can be expected to drown out any but the most dramatic economic statistics.
As a result, the monthly release of jobs data probably has now begun to wane in importance. That leaves the contest on unsettled ground, with the economy not strong enough to guarantee the president's reelection nor weak enough to doom his prospects.
One indication of how other factors in the election have begun to crowd out the economic statistics could be seen in candidates' reactions to the day's economic news.
Obama touched on it only briefly at a White House appearance before moving quickly to his preferred topic of the week, Romney's tax policies. The president charges that those plans ultimately would lead to big tax increases for middle-income families — something Romney disputes.
The country has added 4.5 million jobs over the last two and a half years, with more than a million this year alone, Obama said. Much remains to be done for those still out of work, he said, but added: "We're not going to get to where we need to be if we go back to the policies that helped to create this mess in the first place. And the last thing that we should be doing is asking middle-class families who are still struggling to recover from this recession to pay more in taxes."
Romney, too, focused only lightly on the economic statistics at a news conference in North Las Vegas.
"I'm not going to look so much at every monthly statistic as much as to say this continues a pattern of American families really struggling, having hard times, and the president's policies are to blame for not having gotten the economy back on track," he said. He soon moved on to deny an unsubstantiated charge by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that he had not paid any income taxes for 10 years.
That sequence illustrated how the state of the economy has allowed the focus of the campaign to slip off to other issues, such as Romney's reluctance to release more of his tax returns. As a result, with two partisan armies of roughly equal size firmly dug in, the voters who hold the balance appear to be people whose worries over economic conditions are closely matched by concerns about the Republican candidate.
Republican strategists hope that economic sluggishness sooner or later will help drag Obama to defeat, much as governing figures in numerous countries, including Britain, France, Spain, Italy and Japan, have lost their jobs since the 2008 financial crisis. The Republicans also believe the Romney campaign and its allies will probably hold enough of a financial advantage to make the difference in the fall.
Democrats believe that over the summer, they have succeeded in planting lasting doubts in voters' minds about Romney's character and policy positions. They also argue that they have a superior ability to locate and mobilize their voters, a ground operation they believe will be worth a crucial couple of percentage points in key states.
Over the next couple of weeks, Romney will have his best chance until the debates to shift the campaign focus in his preferred direction. He is expected to announce his choice of a running mate soon, and then comes his party's nominating convention at the end of August.
Obama will attend the Democratic convention the following week and is scheduled to accept his party's nomination on Sept. 6 — the day before the next monthly jobs report is released.
Staff writer Seema Mehta in North Las Vegas contributed to this report.