PITTSBURGH — Poor economic news intensified the presidential campaign Friday, with President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney offering distinctly different views of the nation's economic trajectory. Obama said job growth by private business "is a step in the right direction." Romney declared persistent high unemployment a "kick in the gut."
A stand-pat jobs report that showed a net of only 80,000 jobs created in June and an unemployment rate unchanged at 8.2 percent set a new benchmark for judging the president and for Romney to attempt to exploit just four months from Election Day.
"It's still tough out there," Obama conceded to a campaign crowd in Poland, Ohio. Still, he noted that the private sector jobs created in June contributed to 4.4 million new jobs over the past 28 months, including 500,000 new manufacturing jobs.
"That's a step in the right direction," he said. But he added: "We've got to grow the economy even faster, and we have to put even more people back to work."
Obama criticized Romney for pushing economic ideas that, the president said, have been tried without success before.
Romney, speaking ahead of the president in New Hampshire, used virtually the same argument against Obama, saying he represented liberal policies that had been discredited.
"This kick in the gut has got to end," Romney declared, and he issued a biting indictment of the president.
"American families are struggling, there's a lot of misery in America today," he said, interrupting his vacation in New Hampshire to react to the jobs numbers. "The president's policies have not gotten America working again. And the president is going to have to stand up and take responsibility for it."
Obama was on the second day of a bus tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania, hotly contested battlegrounds whose modest economic gains he hoped to leverage into a case for his re-election.
Romney was at his lakeside vacation home amid growing anxiety among conservatives that he was not being aggressive enough and was squandering his opportunity to win in November. Republicans worry that Obama's attacks against Romney are taking their toll on the challenger and right-leaning leaders in business and the media say he is presenting a muddled case for his presidency despite a weak economy.
"I don't say much to critics," Romney told reporters, noting that he has issued a 59-point economic plan to counter the president.
On his tour, Obama was promoting policies that he says have helped states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, particularly the government bailout of Chrysler and General Motors.
"We saved an auto industry. That saved hundreds of thousands of jobs here in Ohio," Obama said in an interview with NBC affiliate WLWT in Cincinnati that was aired Friday. "We passed a health care law that's going to mean security for Ohioans."
Obama questioned Romney's motives on health care in the same interview, accusing his rival of caving under pressure from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh to say that requiring all Americans to buy health insurance amounts to a tax. Later, at an event in Pittsburgh, Obama told supporters Romney would promote Republican policies on taxes and regulations that he said led to a near economic meltdown in 2008.
"They're banking on the notion that you don't remember what happened when they were in charge, the last time they were in charge of the White House," Obama said.
Romney said Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled the requirement to buy health insurance was a tax, which amounted to a shift in his position. Earlier in the week, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney viewed the mandate as a penalty, a fee or a fine — not a tax.
"So the question becomes, are you doing that because of politics?" Obama said. "Are you abandoning a principle that you fought for, for six years simply because you're getting pressure for two days from Rush Limbaugh or some critics in Washington?"
At his stop in Poland, Ohio, Obama defended the health care law, saying he was proud of it and calling it the "right thing to do" for Americans. "I make no apologies for it," Obama said.
The jobless numbers commanded most attention Friday and could determine the nature of the political debate to come. The unemployment and hiring figures provide monthly milestones with which to measure the human toll of the weak economic recovery.
Republicans were quick to contend the report showed Obama's policies had failed.
"The president bet on a failed 'stimulus' spending binge that led to 41 months of unemployment above 8 percent," House Speaker John Boehner said. "He bet on a government takeover of health care that's driving up costs and making it harder for small businesses to hire."
Democrats sought to capitalize on the jobs created, which at 80,000 were not enough to keep up with population growth but sustained a string of months during which the private sector has increased hiring.
"With the private sector continuing to create jobs for the 28th consecutive month, our economic recovery continues to push forward," Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said in a statement.
Friday's jobless report comes as the public's confidence about the economy is already wavering. The percentage of people in an Associated Press-GfK poll last month that said the economy got better in the past month fell below 20 percent for the first time since fall. And few said they expected much improvement in the unemployment rate in the coming year.6 comments on this story
Romney has not been able to exploit that sentiment fully. In national polls, the president either retains a slight edge or is in a statistical tie with his challenger.
The economic data continue to provide a mixed picture of the recovery. Weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped last week to the lowest number since the week of May 19. At the same time, retailers recorded tepid sales in June. And a report this week said U.S. manufacturing shrank in June for the first time in nearly three years, undermining a top Obama talking point.