WASHINGTON — The 200,000 new December jobs and the dip in the unemployment rate announced Friday are good news for President Barack Obama, whose chances of retaining the White House are lashed to improving the sluggish economy.
Whether the jobs rate can sustain a positive trajectory — and influence public perception that things are getting better by November — is unclear, however.
Improved economic numbers are always a positive, but no president since Franklin Roosevelt has won re-election with an unemployment rate that's higher than 7.2 percent. Analysts say that even if the economy shows a sustained recovery — as it has started to before, only to falter — it takes time to register with the public. Indeed, the White House sought Friday to temper expectations, saying the improving numbers show a recovering, not a recovered, economy.
Obama touted the 3.2 million jobs created over the past 22 months, and said the numbers showed that it would be risky to change paths.
Never miss a local story.
"A lot of families are still having a tough time," the president said. "A lot of small businesses are still having a tough time. But we're starting to rebound. We're moving in the right direction. We have made real progress. Now is not the time to stop."
Years of recession have soured the public, and analysts said it was impossible to know how long it would take for opinions to improve.
"Right now the negative views of the economy are pretty entrenched, which suggests that it's going to take some sustained positive news for things to turn around," said Carroll Doherty, an associate director at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which measures perceptions of economic news and opinions about the national economy.
"I think most voters do not pay much attention to economic statistics. All most people know is, are things currently excellent, are they acceptable or are they terrible," said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow for economics at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center. "And I think, objectively, speaking for most of the country — maybe not in Iowa and New Hampshire — things remain terrible."
Pew poll findings from December reflect that, Doherty said: "People say they're hearing better news, but their overall view of the economy and optimism hasn't shown much improvement."
He suggested a positive trajectory in the jobs numbers could boost Obama, as it did Ronald Reagan in 1983-84.
Unemployment "came down dramatically, more than a point, in late '83 to '84, and that really set him on the way for the '84 election," Doherty said.
President George H.W. Bush's re-election was plagued by a negative trajectory, a rising unemployment rate.
Nigel Gault, the chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, a leading economic forecasting group, said if the U.S. continued "to get no growth in the labor force and we sort of carry on roughly where we are, we could get under 8 percent by Election Day."
That would be a substantial improvement after the rate was stuck at 9 percent or more for most of the past three years.
Obama's challengers maintain that the rate remains perilously high.
Campaigning in South Carolina, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney looked past the strong month to argue that 35 straight months with a jobless rate above 8.5 percent is ''no cause for celebration."
Rick Santorum said he was "very gratified" that the unemployment numbers had declined, but, with a smile, suggested that it was due to increasing optimism that a Republican would win the White House.
The Republicans have hammered Obama, saying that his sweeping health care and stimulus spending bills have run up the U.S. debt and hampered job creation.
A $447 billion job-creation package that the president proposed last fall failed to get much traction in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. The White House has embarked on a strategy of taking small steps of its own, using Obama's executive power to cast him as working to improve the economy despite an obstinate Congress.
The president stepped up the push aggressively this week, defying Congress by making a recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
And after scoring a win last month on an effort to extend a payroll-tax cut for two months, Obama stood with Cordray on Friday, calling on Congress to pass a one-year extension of the tax reduction to keep the recovery going.
"There should not be delay. There should not be a lot of drama," he said.
(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY