Asked about Obama's measured response, White House press secretary Jay Carney said: "We don't make much out of one month's numbers. We look for trends, and we know we have an enormous amount of work to do. 8.6 percent unemployment is way too high."
Still, "there's a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel" for gloomy Democrats, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "It's good news, but it's the kind of thing you have to rejoice about quietly. You don't want to hear the champagne corks popping. There's still so many people unemployed."
But Baker said that if Obama can demonstrate a "reasonable decline over time" in the jobless rate, people might give him the benefit of the doubt. "It doesn't have to get to historical lows to convince people that you're on the right track."
No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been re-elected with a jobless rate higher than 8 percent. Roosevelt won re-election in 1936 with a rate of 16.6 percent, and again in 1940 with a rate of 14.6 percent — but joblessness was on the way down from a peak of around 25 percent.
The jobless rate peaked at 10.6 percent during the brutal 16-month 1981-82 recession while Ronald Reagan was president. But on Election Day 1984 it had fallen to 7.2 percent.
Obama used a joint appearance with former President Bill Clinton on Friday to renew his call to a fractured Congress to extend and expand the cut in the payroll tax cut that finances Social Security and Medicare. The tax cut, due to expire at the end of the year, affects more than 160 million Americans.
Republicans favor extending the tax cut, but have blocked Democratic attempts to do so by paying for it with a new tax on households with more than $1 million in annual taxable income.
With polls showing most Americans favor higher taxes on the wealthy to help bring down soaring budget deficits, Obama and congressional Democrats are portraying Republicans as defenders of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class — a political theme they're sure to carry into the election year.
The jobs report comes during a week that saw solid stock market gains, including a near-500-point Dow Jones industrials rise on Wednesday, all potential good news for Obama.
"Let's say the stock market goes up another 500 or 600 points, and unemployment goes down below 8 percent by Election Day. That could allow for a big Obama surge," said Thomas Cronin, a presidential historian at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo.
But that "if" is a big one.
The prospects of significantly bringing down the jobless rate to pre-recession levels anytime soon "remain slim," suggests University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici. "The economy must add 13.1 million jobs over the next three years_364,000 each month_to bring unemployment down to 6 percent."
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