Breaking a streak of solid to strong job growth, March’s employment numbers came in below expectations with 120,000 new jobs and a surprisingly large number of workers leaving the labor force altogether.
The disappointing figure is a worrisome bump in the road to recovery that comes as many economists, business leaders and investors were growing more optimistic that the economy had entered a self-sustaining cycle of growth.
On the political front, the numbers are a boon to Mitt Romney at exactly the right time, offering him an opportunity to tweak the White House on jobs — his No. 1 issue — as he solidifies his place in the public’s mind as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee.
On Friday, he was quick to tie the report to Obama’s policies, just as he’s done with every jobs report for months. But with Romney lagging behind Obama nationally and in key swing states in many polls, it’s an easier sell with a weak jobs report.
“This is a weak and very troubling jobs report that shows the employment market remains stagnant,” Romney said in a statement. “Millions of Americans are paying a high price for President Obama’s economic policies, and more and more people are growing so discouraged that they are dropping out of the labor force altogether. It is increasingly clear the Obama economy is not working and that after three years in office the president’s excuses have run out.”
The White House sought to find the positive, noting, for example, that manufacturing jobs increased by 37,000. Democrats also tried to put the numbers in a larger timeframe, noting that the economy created more than 600,000 jobs in the first quarter of 2012 and 4.1 million over the last 25 months, meaning the latest figures could be an outlier.
“There is more work to be done, but today’s employment report provides further evidence that the economy is continuing to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,” Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, said in a statement.
Romney’s doom-and-gloom dynamic isn’t true for everyone in the GOP, necessarily. The Republican governors who were swept into office in 2009 and 2010, for example, have consistently been playing up the recovery in order to take credit for their own jobs programs.
Among House Republicans there was a noticeable divide between the reactions of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Eric Cantor (R-VA), the latter of whom declined to attack Obama and emphasized bipartisanship — even as he admitted the numbers were clear bad news.
“Job growth happens when small businessmen and women in this country have the ability to take risks, invest capital and start hiring new workers,” Cantor said in a statement. “We want to make sure they have every opportunity to do so. The JOBS Act is now law because Republicans and Democrats put our differences aside and joined together to deliver results for job creators in this country. We can do more.”
Boehner, by contrast, echoed Romney more closely: “Families and small businesses are still struggling to get by because of President Obama’s failed economic policies.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.