WASHINGTON: Republican challenger Mitt Romney used a government report showing tepid economic growth to hammer President Barack Obama less than two weeks before Election Day, but the report also had some good news for the president.
With the Commerce Department reporting a modest 2 percent growth rate unlikely to make a big dent in unemployment, Romney said Obama inherited a bad situation when he took office and "made the problem worse." He criticized Obama for failing to reduce borrowing and spending, protect entitlement programs or reach deals with Republicans.
The report also provided ammunition for Obama: It showed the economy grew for the 13th straight quarter at a rate that - though modest - beat expectations. Obama claims progress during his term on fixing the economy, though conceding it hasn't been fast enough, and says Romney's policies would only make matters worse.
The economy remains the race's dominant issue. But voters who are still undecided aren't likely to be swayed by Friday's mixed report from the Commerce Department, experts said.
Growth in the July-September quarter climbed slightly but was still too weak to stir significantly more hiring. The pace of expansion increased to a 2 percent annual rate from 1.3 percent in the April-June quarter, led by more consumer and government spending. This year's third-quarter growth is slightly below the 2.2 percent average pace since the recession ended in June 2009.
"For the average American, I don't think changes in quarterly GDP" make a big difference in their perception of the economy, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "It's certainly good for the president that the number is not bad because that would resonate."
With 11 days until the election, the economy is being kept afloat by revitalized consumer spending and the early stages of a housing recovery. But more than three years after the Great Recession ended, the U.S. continues to struggle because businesses are reluctant to invest, and slower global growth has cut demand for American exports. The recovery is still the slowest since World War II.
The latest report did exceed expectations in GDP growth and showed some progress in consumer spending, which drives 70 percent of economic activity.
Consumer spending increased at an annual rate of 2 percent in the July-September quarter, up from 1.5 percent in the previous quarter. And a survey by the University of Michigan released Friday found consumer confidence increased to its highest level in five years this month. That suggests spending may keep growing.
Obama took office during the worst downturn since the Great Depression and says his policies stabilized the economy later that year. He argues that his massive stimulus package and auto bailout helped it grow in 2010.
Romney vows to put his experience as a businessman to use to create 12 million jobs in four years in a country where unemployment only recently fell below 8 percent for the first time since Obama took office. The Republican challenger borrowed a hopeful theme from Obama's successful 2008 campaign, saying he and running mate Paul Ryan "can bring real change to this country."
Democrats delighted in pointing out that Romney spoke outside Kinzler Construction Services, which benefited from more than $650,000 in stimulus funding from the 2009 package Obama that signed into law - and the Republican nominee often criticizes.
Romney campaigned in Iowa and Ohio as national polls showed a tight race. Though his aides claimed momentum, citing recent polls, Obama's team said the president led or was tied in each of the nine battleground states where the two sides have concentrated hundreds of millions of dollars in television commercials over the past five months.
Back in the White House after his long day and night and day of campaigning, Obama said he looked forward to trying to reach a deal with congressional Republicans on a sweeping budget deal if he wins re-election. Asked by radio show host Michael Smerconish if he would make the first move, the president replied, "I've said I'll do whatever's required to get this done.
"And I think the key that the American people want right now is for us to tackle some big challenges that we face in a commonsense, balanced, sensible way." That was a reference to one of his biggest differences with Romney - his insistence that tax cuts be allowed to expire at upper incomes on Dec. 31, as opposed to Romney's insistence that they be extended.
Obama has been under pressure from Romney in recent days to be more specific about a second-term agenda, and he released a 20-page pamphlet earlier this week. He also had interviews with MTV and several battleground-state television stations on his schedule for the day.