WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama set off Friday on the final two months of a brutal climb toward the Nov. 6 election as the country woke up to new, grim unemployment numbers and Republican challenger Mitt Romney declared, “We’re going in the wrong direction.”
The night before, Obama accepted his party’s nomination and warned voters that if they turned away from his message of hope in the November election, “you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible.”
Friday’s campaigning was dominated by a new Labor Department report showing that U.S. employers added just 96,000 jobs last month, failing to meet expectations. The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent in July, but only because more people gave up looking for work.
“That’s not good enough. We know it’s not good enough,” Obama told an audience in New Hampshire Friday.
Romney said Obama’s actions over the past few years gave no confidence that he could create jobs or get the economy moving. “This is not even close to what a recovery looks like,” his running mate, Paul Ryan, said in an interview on CNBC.
With the race for the White House about dead even, Obama and Romney were both campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Romney opened the two-month sprint to Election Day by blasting out 15 television ads in eight key states in response to Obama’s speech.
The election could turn on whether voters see the economy as improving, remaining stagnant or getting worse under Obama. The government will issue two more monthly jobs reports before the election, including one on Nov. 2 – four days before election day.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt tried to shift the focus from Friday’s new unemployment numbers to what he said were failings in Romney’s economic plans presented at the Republicans’ own convention last week. “Mitt Romney didn’t offer one idea that would create good-paying, sustainable jobs for the middle class,” LaBolt said in a statement.
Obama contends that, having inherited one of the worst economic crises in history from former President George W. Bush, he needs more time to turn the nation around.
“America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now,” he said Thursday night. “Yes, our path is harder- but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer – but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind.”
For the candidates, the next 60 days promise a high-stakes mix of October debates and multiple appearances in battleground states. The president is not chosen by the popular vote but in state-by-state contests, forcing an intense focus on states that do not reliably vote Republican or Democratic.
So far, this looks to be the closest presidential contest in recent memory.
Polls show more voters think Romney’s record as a successful businessman makes him the best candidate to solve the country’s economic difficulties. The polls also show Obama is ahead on the question of which candidate voters most like and see as attuned to the needs of average Americans.
Fewer than 10 percent of voters are still undecided.
As Obama closes out his first term, the recovery from the Great Recession remains modest at best and the country has endured the longest stretch of unemployment above 8 percent since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Romney will continue hammering Obama on that record, arguing that Obama has squandered his first term and must be turned out of office.
Obama counters that the American people have joined him in legislative and policy triumphs and don’t want to lose that progress in the overhaul of the health care system, changes in immigration policy and an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
“We are not going back, we are moving forward, America,” Obama said.
He built on the message Democrats delivered throughout their convention: America is on the road to recovery while Romney would revive failed policies, cutting taxes for the rich and slashing programs that give regular Americans a chance for a more prosperous future.
Earlier in the week, Michelle Obama spoke about her husband’s humble roots and compassion. Bill Clinton, the popular former president who led the U.S. during years of prosperity in the 1990s, gave a rousing speech Wednesday vouching for Obama’s economic policies and urging Americans not to turn back to Republicans.
Though the economy has dominated the convention, Democrats have also discussed national security issues, where Obama does well in polls. They highlighted his carrying out his promise to pull U.S. combat forces from Iraq and his order that led to the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Obama noted that both Romney and his vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan have little foreign policy experience. “They want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly,” he said.
He said Romney was “stuck in a Cold War time warp” for describing Russia – not Al-Qaeda – as America’s No. 1 enemy. Recalling the stir Romney caused in London by questioning preparations for the Olympics, Obama said: “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
The Romney campaign was dismissive. “Americans will hold President Obama accountable for his record – they know they’re not better off and that it’s time to change direction,” Matt Rhoades, the challenger’s campaign manager, said.