A sobering economic snapshot intensified the presidential campaign Friday, with President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney offering distinctly different views of the nation's economic trajectory. Obama said private sector job growth "is a step in the right direction." Romney declared the continued high unemployment a "kick in the gut."
A stand-pat jobs report that showed a net of only 80,000 jobs created in June and an unemployment rate unchanged at 8.2 percent set a new standard from which to judge the president and for Romney to attempt to exploit just four months from Election Day. Yet even as the economy dominated, the fallout over the Supreme Court's decision on health care and Romney's shifting response to it also continued to reverberate.
"It's still tough out there," Obama conceded to a campaign crowd in this small village outside of Youngstown, Ohio. He noted that the private sector jobs created in June contributed to 4.4 million new jobs over the past 28 months, including 500,000 new manufacturing jobs.
"That's a step in the right direction," he said. But he added: "We've got to grow the economy even faster, and we have to put even more people back to work."
Obama criticized Romney for pushing economic ideas that, the president said, have been tried without success before.
"This kick in the gut has got to end," Romney told reporters, and issued a biting indictment of the president.
"American families are struggling; there's a lot of misery in America today," he said, interrupting his vacation in New Hampshire to react to the jobs numbers. "The president's policies have not gotten America working again. And the president is going to have to stand up and take responsibility for it."
Romney was at his lake-side vacation home amid growing anxiety among conservatives that he was not being aggressive enough and was squandering his opportunity to win in November. Republicans worry that Obama's attacks against Romney are taking their toll on the challenger and right-leaning leaders in business and the media say he is presenting a muddled case for his presidency despite a weak economy.
"I don't say much to critics," Romney told reporters, noting that he has issued a 59-point economic plan to counter the president.
"We saved an auto industry. That saved hundreds of thousands of jobs here in Ohio," Obama said in an interview with NBC affiliate WLWT in Cincinnati that was aired Friday. "We passed a health care law that's going to mean security for Ohioans."
Obama questioned Romney's motives on health care in the same interview, accusing his rival of caving under pressure from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh for saying that requiring all Americans to buy health insurance amounts to a tax.
Romney said Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled the requirement to buy health insurance was a tax, which amounted to a shift in his position. Earlier in the week, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney viewed the mandate as a penalty, a fee or a fine — not a tax.
"So the question becomes, are you doing that because of politics?" Obama said. "Are you abandoning a principle that you fought for, for six years simply because you're getting pressure for two days from Rush Limbaugh or some critics in Washington?"
At his stop in Poland, Ohio, Obama defended the health care law, saying he was "proud" of the law and said it was the "right thing to do" for Americans. "I make no apologies for it," Obama said.
The jobless numbers promised to command attention Friday and determine the nature of the political debate. The unemployment and hiring figures provide monthly milestones with which to measure the human toll of the weak economic recovery.
Republicans were quick to pounce on the report, declaring that Obama's policies had failed.
"The president bet on a failed 'stimulus' spending binge that led to 41 months of unemployment above 8 percent," House Speaker John Boehner said Friday. "He bet on a government takeover of health care that's driving up costs and making it harder for small businesses to hire."
Democrats sought to capitalize on the jobs created, which at 80,000 is not enough to keep up with population growth but sustains a string of months where the private sector has increased hiring.
"With the private sector continuing to create jobs for the twenty-eighth consecutive month, our economic recovery continues to push forward," Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second ranking Democrat in the House, said in a statement.
Friday's jobless report comes as the public's confidence about the economy is already wavering. The percentage of people in an Associated Press-GfK poll last month that said the economy got better in the past month fell below 20 percent for the first time since fall. And few said they expected much improvement in the unemployment rate in the coming year.
Romney has not been able to exploit that sentiment fully. In national polls, the president either retains a slight edge or is in a statistical tie with his challenger.
The economic data continues to provide a mixed picture of the recovery. Weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped last week to the lowest number since the week of May 19. At the same time, retailers recorded tepid sales in June. And a report last week said U.S. manufacturing shrank in June for the first time in nearly three years, undermining a top Obama talking point.