For President Obama, the first national unemployment rate to fall below 8% during his presidency couldn't come at a better time.
The Labor Department's announcement this morning that the economy gained 114,000 jobs in September and the jobless rate fell from 8.1% to 7.8% represents a big, if temporary, political boost for a president suddenly struggling to overcome a poor performance in the first nationally televised debate.
What's more, Obama can even boast that jobs numbers for July and August were better than previously announced. In August, for instance, 142,000 jobs were created, not the 96,000 announced last month.
At a rally in Fairfax, Va., this morning, Obama said the new figures are evidence the nation is moving forward, and he warned Republicans not to "talk down the economy to score a few political points."
"This month's jobs report shows the economy is finally beginning to build some momentum, and this news could not come at a better time for the president," said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO. "People are coming back into the labor force, and employers are showing some confidence."
The White House was customarily cautious in heralding the new jobs figures.
"While there is more work that remains to be done, today's employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression," said Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. "It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class."
Conservatives immediately sought to throw cold water on the upbeat report. Republican nominee Mitt Romney, coming off a strong debate performance and seeking to keep the momentum on his side, noted the number of new jobs got smaller each month during the summer, signifying a downward trend.
"This is not what a real recovery looks like," Romney said in a statement. "We created fewer jobs in September than in August,and fewer jobs in August than in July, and we've lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office. If not for all the people who have simply dropped out of the labor force, the real unemployment rate would be closer to 11%."
The latest numbers are sure to produce a new spate of TV ads. Obama can claim 31 consecutive months of private-sector job growth and an unemployment rate that has dropped to levels not seen since he came into office in January 2009. Romney can say 12.1 million Americans remain out of work -- nearly twice that if those who are underemployed or have stopped looking for jobs are included.
The jobs numbers can make or break a presidential campaign -- or, at least, a candidate's momentum. A stagnant unemployment rate in the 7.5% range helped doom Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Obama's numbers have been worse since his first full month in office, ranging from 8.1% to 10%. He is likely to say on the campaign trail that the latest report continues a pattern of job growth following his first year in office, a period that has seen more than 5 million private-sector jobs created.
The president will have one last chance to get further below 8% on Nov. 2, four days before the election, when figures for October and revisions for earlier months are released. By then, however, most voters' minds will have been made up, in part based on their own employment or financial situation.
In fact, some economists and political analysts say voters' minds generally aren't swayed by reports or statistics, but by how they feel about the economy and how it affects their families. That sentiment usually gets firmed up by early summer, says Jared Bernstein, former top economist for Vice President Biden, who's now at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Still, Bernstein said, the latest report offers insight back to the important summer months through its revisions: The economy was growing by an average of 67,000 jobs a month in the second quarter, but 146,000 per month in the third quarter. That "should boost the incumbent's 'We're moving in the right direction' narrative," he said.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former Congressional Budget Office director and top economic adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008, said the 7.8% jobless rate is based on a "statistical anomaly" -- an unusually high estimate of new jobs from the Labor Department's household survey.
"The White House will pounce on this," he said. "Being lucky is better than being good."
The Labor Department also revised its jobs figures for the previous two months. In all, it said 86,000 more jobs were created in those two months than previously stated.
The report comes less than 36 hours after Romney's strong performance and Obama's lackluster one in the first presidential debate.
During the debate, Romney pledged again to create 12 million new jobs in the next four years, saying, "My priority is putting people back to work in America." He followed that up with a new TV ad Thursday morning that claimed his energy plan would reap more than 3 million, his tax plan another 7 million, and the remainder from trade policies and job training.
Obama acknowledged in the debate that the nation had been through a painful period but said, "We've begun to fight our way back." On the campaign trail Thursday, he vowed to create 1 million new manufacturing jobs and hundreds of thousands in the green energy business.