WASHINGTON/CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) – A bleak monthly U.S. jobs report poured cold water on President Barack Obama’s hopes for a post-convention bounce on Friday, putting him on the defensive as he entered the final two-month sprint to the November 6 election.
Just hours after basking in the glow of his supporters’ adulation on Thursday night at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Obama was hit by a stark reminder of the challenge he faces convincing voters to give him a second term despite stubbornly high unemployment on his watch.
U.S. jobs growth slowed more than expected in August, with nonfarm payrolls increasing only 96,000, the Labor Department said. While the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent, it was bad news for the economy because the decline was largely due to Americans giving up the search for work.
The grim report was likely to dim the convention afterglow for Obama, who in an impassioned speech accepting his party’s nomination had appealed to Americans for more time and patience to finish his economic agenda.
His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, seized on the latest jobs data to slam Obama’s handling of the economy.
“If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover,” Romney said in a statement. “It is clear that President Obama just hasn’t lived up to his promises and his policies haven’t worked. We aren’t better off than they were four years ago.”
Obama’s nationally televised acceptance speech capped two weeks of back-to-back nominating conventions for Obama and Romney.
The address opened the last phase of a White House battle that polls show is essentially deadlocked amid deep voter concerns about the economy, which Obama argued he had put on the road to recovery even though growth remained lackluster.
Both candidates were hitting the campaign trail on the morning of the release of the August labor market report, a crucial economic indicator that both camps were watching anxiously in a campaign dominated by the debate over job creation.
The latest jobs data could give a boost to Romney, the former head of a private equity firm who has made his business experience the centerpiece of his campaign. He argues he is uniquely qualified to create job growth and says Obama is not up to the job.
BACK ON CAMPAIGN TRAIL
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden head on Friday to the toss-up states of Iowa and New Hampshire for joint campaign events. Romney also will head to those two states, which could be critical to piecing together the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
They are among eight to 10 battleground states that are likely to decide the election, a list that also includes Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin.
Those states have been flooded by tens of millions of dollars in television advertisements by the campaigns, and hundreds of millions more from outside groups allied with the two candidates.
The Romney camp announced that it would release 15 new television ads on the economy, called “A Better Future,” in eight states on Friday – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
Polls show the economy is the top issue for voters, and Obama addressed their anxieties in his acceptance speech.
“You elected me to tell you the truth, and the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades,” he said.
“But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place.”
Republicans were unimpressed. “Americans will hold President Obama accountable for his record – they know they’re not better off and that it’s time to change direction,” Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said in a statement.
The Obama speech, moved indoors to a 20,000-seat basketball arena after threats of severe weather canceled plans to hold it in a 74,000-seat football stadium, in many ways failed to capture the energy and excitement of his 2008 nomination in Denver.
Democrats said they were pleased with the three-day convention, which also featured energetic speeches by first lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton that galvanized the crowd and sent Democrats home with a renewed energy.
“That was inspiring. I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been,” Azziem Underwood, a delegate from Renton, Washington, said after Obama left the stage.
With the conventions done – Republicans met last week in Tampa, Florida – the next big event on the political calendar is the first of three presidential debates on October 3 in Denver.
Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also will meet in one debate on October 11 in Danville, Kentucky.