PITTSBURGH (AP) — Disappointing job growth jolted the presidential campaign four months before Election Day, and the candidates quickly put their vastly different views on display, underscoring the economy as the central issue between President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney.
Obama sought consolation from hiring figures that showed at least some job growth still under way, calling them a “step in the right direction” and pleading with voters to stick with him. Romney spoke of misery across the nation, warned Obama would do nothing but deepen it and addressed a disgruntled middle class by saying, “This kick in the gut has got to end.”
Overall, the stand-pat nature of the new data was not a game-changer in the close presidential contest — one in which the president’s approval ratings hover around or slightly below 50 percent and he retains a slight lead, if any, over Romney.
And while no president since the Great Depression has sought re-election with unemployment as high as it is now, Obama has proven to be a resilient campaigner while Romney has come under conservative criticism, accused of playing it too safe and muddling his message.
The lackluster jobs report showed a net of only 80,000 jobs created in June and an unemployment rate unchanged at 8.2 percent. The monthly snapshot has taken on outsized importance, providing a plain measure by which to judge the president and give Romney further grounds to attack.
Yet even as the economy dominates the political landscape, fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision on health care and Romney’s shifting response to it also continues to reverberate.
The president accused Romney of caving in to the pressure of conservatives in his party on the question of whether the health insurance requirement carries a “penalty” or a “tax.” The former governor of Massachusetts had little to say when pressed about that, turning all attention back to job creation and Obama’s record, the areas where he wants to compete and win.
“It’s still tough out there,” Obama conceded to a campaign crowd in Poland, Ohio, a small town outside Youngstown. 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 spent two days campaigning by bus in Ohio and Pennsylvania, hotly contested battlegrounds whose modest economic gains he hopes to leverage into a case for his re-election. And he criticized Romney for pushing economic ideas that, the president said, have been tried without success before.
Romney, speaking ahead of the president in New Hampshire, used virtually the same argument, saying Obama represents liberal policies that have been discredited.
“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.”
Obama, rolling across the landscape of northern Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania, made his “were-all-in this-together” economic pitch with the personal touch of a politician. He spoke to a raucous group at an elementary school, stopped by an old fashioned bakery and exhorted a crowd at an outdoor scene in Pittsburgh where hundreds of people waited for him in scorching heat.
Emergency officials said 13 people at the Pittsburgh speech were taken to emergency rooms for heat-related problems.
In a sad note, an Ohio restaurant owner who hosted Obama for breakfast became ill and died hours later. The Summit County medical examiner’s office in Akron said 70-year-old Josephine “Ann” Harris, the proprietor of Ann’s Place, died Friday of natural causes. Obama called her daughter, Wilma Parsons, with condolences from Air Force One.
Friday’s jobless report came with public confidence about the economy already wavering. The percentage of people in a recent Associated Press-GfK poll who said the economy had improved in the previous month fell below 20 percent for the first time since fall. And few said they expected much improvement in in the employment rate in the coming year.
The jobs report raised new anxieties. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 124 points, wiping out the measure’s gain for the week. The liberal Economic Policy Institute called the sustained high rates of unemployment an “ongoing, severe crisis for the American workforce.”
Another number that was worrying the Obama camp Friday was the report that Romney had raised more than $100 million for his campaign and for the Republican Party in June. Romney and the party outraised Obama and Democrats in May.
The Obama campaign said it was still tallying its June figures. But in an urgent plea, campaign manager Jim Messina said in an email to supporters that that if Romney’s fundraising “continues at this pace, it could cost us the election.
Despite Obama’s vulnerable position on the economy and Romney’s growing fundraising clout, Romney has not been able to gain significant political advantage. The AP poll showed that the public trusted Obama and Romney in about equal ratios on who would handle the economy best, and Romney has yet to sustain a lead over Obama in national polls.
Romney has played up his business background, but political strategists believe Obama has managed to neutralize that potential advantage by attacking Romney’s tenure as head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm.
A number of conservatives have raised anxious voices about Romney’s campaign, fearing that he is jeopardizing his chances of winning with a confused message.
“I don’t say much to critics,” Romney countered Friday, noting that he has laid out his economic vision with a 59-point plan.
Eager to use the weak recovery to advantage, a pro-Republican group said Friday it will spend $25 million on new TV ads that blame Obama and that call for lower taxes and less regulation. The group, Crossroads GPS, said the ads will air in nine battleground states from July 10 through early August.
At one stop Friday, Obama marveled at the amount of money that such Republican-allied groups are spending.
“It is alright because I’m tough,” he said. “I’m skinny but I’m tough.”
Friday’s jobs numbers represented a third straight month of weak hiring. The second quarter of 2012 averaged 75,000 jobs a month, far too few to lower the unemployment rate. That slump repeated a three-year cycle where robust job gains early in the year have given way to hiring slowdowns by spring or summer.
Obama could face the highest unemployment rate on Election Day of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But his aides argue that the trend line is more important than the actual number. Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980 to Ronald Reagan as unemployment climbed from 6 percent to 7.5 percent. George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 as unemployment rose from 6.9 percent to 7.6 percent.
While Reagan faced an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent in October 1984, the rate had been dropping since the spring of 1983. He went on to win re-election.
Jim Kuhnhenn reported from Washington. AP writer Kevin Begos contributed from Pittsburgh.