WASHINGTON – September’s lower unemployment rate breaks the 8 percent psychological and political barrier that has stubbornly dogged Barack Obama through his presidency, halting the kind of stagnant high joblessness that has weighed down past presidents seeking re-election in economically troubled times.
For Obama, the trend line now looks more like Ronald Reagan’s in his successful re-election in 1984 than Jimmy Carter’s in his losing effort in 1980.
The 0.3 percentage point drop to 7.8 percent unemployment last month comes at a welcome time for Obama, one month before Election Day and less than 36 hours after he delivered a lackluster debate performance that reinvigorated the campaign of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
“The main effect of this particular number is going to be primarily political,” said Bruce Bartlett, an economist in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. “It gives Obama a talking point, something to get people’s attention off his debate performance.”
“As long as people are seeing improvement,” Bartlett added, “at least some voters are going to say to themselves, ‘Well, best not to switch horses in the middle of the stream.’”
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that the vast majority of voters already have settled on a candidate, but 17 percent of likely voters are considered persuadable – either because they’re undecided or showing soft support for Obama or Romney.
Roughly 56 percent of persuadables approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president, but fewer, 47 percent, approve of his handling of the economy.
Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey in September found only two issues rated as “very important” for more than 80 percent of voters: 87 percent rated the economy that way and 83 percent placed jobs in that category.
John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University who has examined the intersection of economic data and politics, said Obama could benefit simply from the good media coverage the jobs numbers might get after a debate where his performance was panned.
“It changes the story line, but that may be what affects voter behavior in the end,” Sides said. “A small number of undecided voters may be sensitive to good news and bad news about the two candidates. In that way the good economic news is helpful for Obama.”
The new threshold, which drops unemployment to a level unseen since Obama took office in January 2009, carries more political than economic weight. The Labor Department reported that employers added 114,000 jobs in September, slightly better than expected but still below levels needed to sustain a reduction in unemployment.
The long-term unemployment rate was little changed at 4.8 million.
Jobs have been a central theme in this election. The words “job” and “jobs” were among the most frequently mentioned in Wednesday’s debate in Denver, uttered at a rate of more than once every two minutes in a 90-minute showdown.
Carter lost his re-election bid to Reagan in 1980 as unemployment climbed from 6 percent in October 1979 to 7.5 percent in October 1980.
George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 in the midst of rising unemployment, which went from 6.9 percent September 1991 to 7.6 percent in September 1992.
Obama can now hope he is more like Reagan in 1984, who won re-election with a jobless rate of 7.3 percent in September of that year, after dropping from 8 percent nine months earlier.
The jobs news also had the effect of overshadowing a new estimate that put the deficit for the just-completed 2012 budget year at $1.1 trillion, the fourth straight year of trillion-dollar deficits under Obama’s tenure.
If Obama had a silver lining, Romney saw darker signs in the data.
“This is not what a real recovery looks like,” Romney declared, focusing on a lesser noticed detail in the report that showed that rate of people employed or actively seeking employment has dropped from when Obama took office.
It will take new polling, and ultimately the election results, to determine whether this new unemployment report will affect the election. Obama and Romney entered Wednesday’s debate running about evenly among those most likely to vote, with most polls in the last couple of weeks putting Romney a few points behind nationally. Several battleground states were neck and neck, but Obama appeared to hold comfortable leads in New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Past, bleaker monthly reminders of joblessness had not markedly altered the trajectory of the presidential campaign.