President Barack Obama emerged from the euphoria of his party's convention Friday and ran smack into the harsh reality of a bleak new report on the nation's unemployment outlook. Republican rival Mitt Romney pounced on the disappointing jobs figures as fresh evidence that it's time to put someone new in the Oval Office.
Obama and Romney shadow each other Friday: Both campaign in New Hampshire and Iowa, improbable battleground states in the too-close-to-call race. Their campaigning was sure to be dominated by the 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.
"After 43 straight months of unemployment above 8 percent, it is clear that President Obama just hasn't lived up to his promises and his policies haven't worked," Romney said in a statement issued as he flew to Iowa. "We aren't better off than they were four years ago. My plan for a stronger middle class will create 12 million new jobs by the end of my first term. America deserves new leadership that will get our economy moving again."
On the morning after Obama's closing speech at the Democratic National Convention, Romney said: "If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover."
During a campaign appearance in New Hampshire later, Obama retorted: "If the Republicans are serious about being concerned about joblessness, we could create a million new jobs right now if Congress would pass the jobs plan I sent to them a year ago — jobs for teachers, jobs for construction workers, jobs for folks who have been looking for work for a long time."
Earlier, Obama made a low-profile departure from his convention city en route to New Hampshire. He left it to Alan Krueger, chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, to frame the jobs report as "further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression."
Krueger added that it was "important not to read too much into any one monthly report."
Republicans chose to ignore that advice. On CNBC, Romney running mate Paul Ryan said: "This is not even close to what a recovery looks like."
"I would argue that this is the result of failed leadership in Washington, bad fiscal policy coming from the administration, and that is why we have this very tepid report," Ryan added.
House Speaker John Boehner said the report "underscores President Obama's failed promises to get our economy moving again."
"The American people are still asking, `where are the jobs,' " the Ohio Republican said in a statement.
Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs was up early to pronounce that the Democratic gathering had achieved its goals. Speaking before the jobs numbers were released, the adviser said the president "understands we still have a long way to go" to strengthen the economy.
Gibbs acknowledged there's a far different dynamic to this race than the excitement and novelty that were associated with Obama's historic first race for the White House.
"This isn't 2008, we understand that," he said on "CBS This Morning."
The November election could turn on whether voters see the economy as improving, remaining stagnant or getting worse under Obama.
Friday's numbers gave both campaigns something to point to make their rival cases. Supporters of the president could hail the drop to 8.1 percent, suggesting it shows the economy is on the mend, if slowly. And Republicans focused on the raw job losses.
"For every one job created, nearly four people left the workforce," Ryan told CNBC.
Either way, the numbers suggest that not much has happened over the past month to change the overall picture of a painfully slow recovery.
Romney and the Republicans argue that three years of unemployment above 8 percent and minimal economic growth are valid reasons to fire Obama after one term. The incumbent contends that, having inherited one of the worst economic crises in history, he needs more time to turn the nation around.
"I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have," Obama told Democrats at their convention Thursday night. "You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. 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."
For the candidates, the two months to Nov. 6 promise a high-stakes mix of debates, multiple appearances in a dozen battleground states and hours of campaign speeches. Both will be scrapping for the precious commodity of electoral votes to reach the winning number of 270, leaving no competitive state quiet this fall. The airwaves will be inundated with ads from the campaigns and outside groups, with Romney likely to have more money to spend.
The GOP nominee has new ads running in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia — mapping out many of the key battleground states where the race will play out. His campaign has purchased about $4.5 million in television advertising for the next several days, according to officials who track such spending.
The themes of those ads — deficit, home values, defense, over-regulation, manufacturing, energy, families — offer a preview of some of the issues sure to dominate the conversation in coming weeks.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with their wives, campaign Friday in New Hampshire, which offers four electoral votes, and Iowa (six), before ending the day in Florida, the highest-count swing state with 29.
While Romney hits Iowa and New Hampshire, too, his wife, Ann, presses for votes in Virginia —13 electoral votes — and Ryan, focuses on Nevada — six votes. The battleground list includes Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In his prime-time speech Thursday night, Obama cast the election as a stark choice of competing visions about the country and the role of government. He described a nation where the government bailed out desperate automakers, a move Romney opposed, and saved thousands of jobs. Obama contrasted that with a Republican approach that he argued sees tax cuts as a solution to all problems and focuses on the individual.
"Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning," Obama said in a mocking tone.
Patience was the watchword at the three-day Democratic convention in Charlotte as delegates roared through Obama's speech and frequently chanted "Four more years." Romney also talked about patience at the Republican gathering in Florida last week, but he said America had run out of it.
"Americans have supported this president in good faith. ... The time has come to turn the page," the GOP nominee said in his convention speech.
As the Democrats wrapped up their three-day gathering, the Romney campaign made clear the election would be a referendum on the president's tenure.
"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 in a statement.
Obama mentioned his rival by name just once, but his target was clear. The president highlighted the national security successes — the death of Osama bin Laden, the fight against al-Qaeda — that have earned him high marks in opinion polls, a contrast to the low grades he receives on the economy. Romney, he pointed out, stumbled during his overseas trip, angering Britain when he suggested its Olympics preparation had fallen short.