Obama in hot seat as US jobless rate rises

WASHINGTON – The clock is ticking for US President Barack Obama to turn the economy around by the end of summer as the jobless rate rose Friday to 8.2 percent from the previous month’s 8.1 percent, analysts said.

The US economy added a paltry 69,000 jobs in May, falling short of the 90,000 to 100,000 jobs that economists said are needed each month just to keep pace with growth in the working-age population.

Analysts believed that Obama has until September to show voters that the economy is turning around amid the lead-up to November’s elections. Otherwise, many will view the president as unable to boost employment, which could cost him dearly in an election in which jobs will overwhelmingly top voters’ list of priorities.

Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said unemployment needs to drop below 8 percent for the president to be able to say things are headed in the right direction and that he deserves credit for the economic turnaround.

And that has to happen at least two months before the elections, as voters are likely to disregard any last-minute good news, West said.

Friday’s figures do not look good for Obama, analysts said, though it remains unclear whether they are indicative of a slowdown.

“The May jobs figures are likely still being weighed down by seasonal issues, as evidenced by a drop in construction and in leisure and hospitality. Thus, these numbers should not yet be read as a sign of a slowdown,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

Indeed, analysts said that there may still be a window for the president to show progress on the economy, but time is running out. If Friday’s dismal jobs report is just a fluke and the numbers bounce back next month, the president may be on firmer ground in the November elections.

Republicans blasted the president for the jobs numbers.

“It’s clear that the policies we’ve seen are not working,” said House Speaker John Boehner. “The American people are in a desperate spot.”

Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney called the numbers  “devastating” and laid the blame on Obama’s handling of the economy.

Democrats returned fire, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi saying that Republicans have no jobs plan, underscoring a Congress that is deadlocked on the issue most important to Americans.

Speaking Friday at a campaign event in Minnesota, Obama called for patience, saying that while the economy is adding jobs, “we’re just not creating them as fast as we want,” local media reported.

But in an unusual shift in language, the White House released a statement Friday saying that “problems in the job market were long in the making and will not be solved overnight” — a departure from the administration’s usual claims that monthly jobs reports show a slow road toward recovery.

Gary Burtless, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said the May jobs report “offers a mixed and mostly unpromising picture of the job market recovery.”

The closely watched payroll employment numbers provided two doses of bad news. May’s jobs gains of 69,000 marked the slowest rate of improvement since May 2011, when employers added just 54,000 new employees to their payrolls. At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revised downward its earlier estimates of payroll gains in March and April, erasing a total of 49,000 jobs from previously estimated gains in the two months.

Burtless said that the problem of long-term unemployment remains  “acute,” noting that around 43 percent of the nation’s jobless say they’ve been pounding the pavement in search of work for at least six months.

Though the percentage of unemployed in long-term spells is down slightly from when it peaked in 2010 and 2011, it remains sharply higher than in any month of the post-war period up through the recent global downturn, Burtless said.

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