WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama got new jobs figures Friday to buttress his argument that he's presiding over steady, if slow, economic growth. But the government's report that the overall rate of unemployment actually crept up by one-tenth of a point allows Republican Mitt Romney to keep pressure on Obama to defend his record.
The new unemployment numbers show that private employers added 163,000 jobs in July, the best pace of hiring in five months. The jobless rate rose, however, to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent in June. (See separate story.) Romney jumped on the report, calling the figures a "hammer blow" to middle-class families.
"We've now gone 42 consecutive months with the unemployment rate above 8 percent," Romney said in a statement. "Middle-class Americans deserve better, and I believe America can do better."
No U.S. president since World War II has been re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent.
Obama's re-election campaign focused its attention not on the uptick in the unemployment rate, but on the 29th straight month of private sector job growth. Seeking to draw a contrast with Romney, campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said the presumptive GOP nominee's pledge to make "severe cuts" in the budget "would slow economic growth and could lead to another recession."
White House economist Alan Krueger said Friday's report was evidence that the economy is recovering.
"It is critical that we continue the policies that build an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007," Krueger said.
Obama was expected to comment on the new jobs numbers later Friday at a White House event on middle-class tax cuts. Romney was campaigning in Nevada, the state with the nation's highest unemployment rate, before heading to a fundraiser in Idaho.
The economy remains the top issue for voters less than three months before Election Day.
While the overall race for the White House remains deadlocked, several polls show Romney with an advantage over Obama on economic issues. A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted in late July found 50 percent of Americans said Romney is the candidate who would be better at job creation, with 44 percent siding with Obama.
Obama, while acknowledging that economic growth hasn't come fast enough, has sought to convince voters that the situation could have been far worse. He puts some of the blame for the sluggish recovery on congressional Republicans, accusing them of blocking his proposals for creating jobs.
Friday's better-than-expected jobs report follows months of dour economic news that erased any doubt that the U.S. was in a summer slump for the third year in a row.
The American economy grew at a listless 1.5 percent annual pace from April through June, even slower than the 2 percent rate in the first three months of the year. From April through June, the economy produced an average of just 75,000 jobs a month, the weakest three months since August through October 2010.
The slide comes after the optimism of early 2012, when the first three months of job growth averaged more than 225,000 a month.
The candidates sparred from afar on the economy Thursday. Romney, campaigning in Colorado, said his economic program would create 12 million jobs in the next four years. Obama told voters in Florida that his rival favors "trickle-down tax cut fairy dust" that has failed to fix the economy in the past.
Romney's plan for job growth included several broad ideas but few specifics. He said he would help small business owners, cut spending to reduce the deficit and cut taxes.
Obama sought this week to draw a contrast with Romney on taxes, saying the Republican's call for extending cuts for upper-income earners would mean higher tax bills for the middle class. The president's new television ad made the case with a highly personalized message: Romney has paid a lower proportion of his income in taxes than many people of lesser means.
Obama planned to hammer his tax message again on Friday by calling on Congress to extend tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 annually before those cuts expire at the end of the year. The president wants to end the tax cuts, first enacted under President George W. Bush, for families making more than $250,000.