Friday’s announcement of a drop in the U.S. unemployment rate from nine percent to 8.6 percent is seen by experts as a boost to President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects next year, especially if it becomes a trend.
The drop in the jobless rate is the best economic and political news for the White House in months, and President Obama was quick to note the progress during a speech in Washington.
“As president, my most pressing challenge is doing everything I can every single day to get this economy growing faster and create more jobs,” he said.
Economists say the new figures are a good sign but they also note that the jobless rate is down in part because a lot of Americans have stopped looking for work.
Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, were cautious.
“Any job creation is welcome news," Boehner said. "But the jobless rate in our country is still unacceptably high.”
Political experts say the economy and jobless rate will be key issues in next year’s presidential election. Voters will hold President Obama accountable if the economy remains weak, said analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
“He either needs to change the economy and the jobs situation and the overall mood of the country, which is very difficult to do, or he is going to need to change the election so that it is not about jobs but is about 'Do you trust the Republicans? Are the Republicans too scary?' Then he has a chance for re-election,” Rothenberg said.
The Republicans hoping to win their party’s nomination and run against Mr. Obama next year have largely focused their campaigns on the president’s economic record, including former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich.
“If Obama is re-elected and he comes to believe that his radicalism was vindicated despite the economy, despite the deficit, despite everything, I can’t imagine what his second term would be like."
At the moment, Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are at the top of public opinion polls measuring support for the eight Republican presidential contenders. Romney continues to emphasize his experience in the private sector.
“I want to go to work to help American businesses again succeed, thrive, add employees," Romney has said during his campaign. "I don’t hate business. I like business!”
A steady trend of improvement in the jobless figures would greatly help the president’s chances of re-election, according to Democratic political strategist Steve McMahon.
“What matters most in a presidential campaign at the end when it comes to the economy is 'do people feel like things are getting better and on a path to getting better, or do they think things are the same or getting worse?'”
McMahon and other Democrats hope Mr. Obama can follow the example of former president Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Reagan won a sweeping re-election victory in 1984 even with the unemployment rate at 7.2 percent, largely because voters believed the country was headed in the right direction.
On the other hand, a jobless rate of more than seven percent can be politically lethal. Incumbent presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush all lost their election bids when the unemployment rate was 7.4 percent or higher.