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A Chrysler auto worker at the Belvidere, Ill. plant, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012, where a third shift will be added. (AP)

Good January Jobs News, Yes, But Still Much Time Before Election Day

Feb 3, 2012

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Whoever first said a year is a lifetime in politics was right.

A year ago, the U.S. economy's jobless rate was 9.1 percent, there was open talk of the possibility of a double-dip recession and President Obama's path to re-election seemed very steep, to say the least.

A year later, the unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in January 2012 as the economy added 243,000 jobs in the month, far more than economists forecast. Fears of a potential double-dip recession have receded and the president's chances at re-election certainly appear to have improved significantly.

All of which suggests that as encouraging as the employment report for January 2012 was, it still is only the start of this general-election year. That means the jobless rate now will likely have less to do with what eventually happens in the presidential and congressional races than where it stands in October.

There's plenty of time for new clouds to descend on the economy. Europe or Iran could either deliver up financial or oil shocks, respectively. And there's always the imponderable crisis that seemingly comes out of nowhere.

Still, for the president, and even more importantly for those looking for work and the economy over all, the economic trends certainly appear to be headed in the right direction.

The data certainly raise the political messaging challenges for the Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress. Their strategy has been summed up by the slogan used by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney's campaign: "Obama isn't working."

If the present economic trend continues, however, that's a message that may well undergo some revision to something along the lines of "Obama isn't working well enough. Republicans will do better." Not as catchy as the original but you have to work with what you have.

That seemed to be the theme underlying the Republican reaction Friday. Romney's campaign tweeted a reaction that captured the general tone of the GOP response:

"While we welcome a decline in unemployment, these numbers can't hide the fact that the President's policies have prevented a true recovery."

Romney is talking about an economic recovery, of course, and his conclusion is obviously colored by his need to draw a partisan contrast, as the would-be Republican presidential nominee.

But there's another recovery, Obama's, which raises the difficulty level for whoever eventually becomes the Republican nominee for the White House.

The president hit a job-approval low of 38 percent in October according to Gallup but has trended upwards since then, registering 46 percent in Gallup's most recent tracking poll.

Even before Friday's Labor Department report, Charlie Cook, one of Washington's most respected political-race handicappers, wrote that Obama's re-election prospects have improved significantly.

Again, it's only February 2012, however. And while Obama's numbers have improved, he's still only about where one-term President George H.W. Bush was in terms of approval ratings in 1992.

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