WASHINGTON (AP) - The promising drop in unemployment on Friday looks like a job-security bonus for President Barack Obama as well, undercutting Republicans' assertions that his economic policies have failed. The president himself heralded the news with his most confident assessment yet.
"We're starting to rebound," he declared. "We're moving in the right direction."
It's still 10 months until Election Day, and while the narrative is positive for Obama now, the economy could still turn sour again. The Republicans who want his job were giving him no credit on Friday, and Rick Santorum even suggested hiring was improving because business owners figured Obama was on his way out.
But December's 8.5 percent jobless rate - down from 8.7 in November and 9 percent in October - gives Obama a positive story line through the Republican presidential primaries in January and underscores other bright spots emerging on the economic scene for his yearlong fight for re-election.
More good economic news: The average workweek lengthened, average hourly pay rose and the length of time people spent unemployed also declined. To some economists the data indicated the economy was approaching "escape velocity" - the space age term to describe the ability of a recovery to sustain itself and break away from a recession's gravitational pull.
As Obama's potential rivals fight their way toward the Republican nomination by trying to distinguish themselves from each other and from Obama, the news on jobs dilutes a central theme of their candidacies - that Obama has failed to turn the economy around.
More Americans now expect the economy to improve this year than to get worse, according to a recent Associated Press-GfK poll. At the same time, Obama is being held more accountable for what happens.
Obama has been loath to crow about any positive economic indicators, and White House economists have repeatedly stressed they do not read much into a single month's report.
So it was notable on Friday that the president, while offering the customary cautions, could barely contain his optimism. Three times during brief remarks to staff at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau he said the economy or the country was "moving in the right direction." December marked the fourth straight month of decline in the jobless rate.
"A lot of families are still having a tough time. A lot of small businesses are still having a tough time," he said. "But we're starting to rebound. We're moving in the right direction. We have made real progress."
Still, Obama is likely to face the highest unemployment rate on Election Day of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A key to his re-election will be whether the economy can sustain the encouraging hiring trend. Time and again, David Axelrod, his top political adviser, has said the actual unemployment number is not as important as the trajectory.
Consider Jimmy Carter, who lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan as unemployment climbed from 6 percent in October 1979 to 7.5 percent in October of the 1980 election year. Likewise, George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 in the midst of rising unemployment, which went from 6.9 percent September 1991 to 7.6 percent in September 1992.
Reagan managed to get re-elected in 1984 even though unemployment stood at 7.4 percent in October of that year. The difference was that his unemployment trend line had been dropping since the spring of 1983.
For Obama, the positive trend is hardly pure economic sunshine.
While employers added 200,000 in December, economists say that at that pace it would take about seven years to return the unemployment rate to pre-recession levels. And the number is still higher than when Obama took office.
What's more, the economy appeared to be on the rebound last spring only to tumble.
"The public has seen green shoots before that haven't proved to be good omens of things to come," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "This has to keep going before it pays political dividends."
Republicans seeking to challenge Obama for the White House kept up their economic criticism Friday even as they acknowledged an improved jobs picture. The president's policies, they said, rather than being a cause for greater employment, have impeded faster growth.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the job creation a "very anemic program."
"You don't see dynamic economic growth, you don't see an engine pulling us out of the recession right now," he told reporters before touring a gun manufacturer in Newport, N.H. "I think the presidents' program is slowing down the recovery rather than accelerating it."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in a statement, said Obama's policies "have slowed the recovery and created misery for 24 million Americans who are unemployed, or stuck in part-time jobs when what they really want is full-time work."
And Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator suggested - with a grin - that the economic good news reflected the public's expectations that a Republican might win the White House in November.
Republicans still have an economic argument to make, even if the jobs picture improves. Some Republican pollsters argue that controlling deficits and the national debt are still winning arguments for the GOP. In last month's AP-GfK poll, Republicans held a 12-point advantage as the party more trusted to manage the federal budget deficit. On the economy generally, the two parties were about even.
And while the narrative is positive for Obama now, the economic situation could still sour things for him.
Europe remains threatened with recession if its debt crisis deepens, and economists predict only modest U.S. economic growth in 2012. In addition, the number of unemployed remains stratospheric. And the jobless rate is likely to tick up as the country gets closer to Election Day as discontented job searchers who aren't currently counted in the unemployment figures find reason to scour the want ads once again.
Though many economists credit the $800 billion stimulus plan Obama pushed through Congress in 2009 for helping the country begin climbing out of the recession, the spending it required has been unpopular with the public and a target of Republicans.
So on Friday, in his remarks, Obama attributed the better jobs numbers to the 2011 payroll tax cut instead. And he called on Congress to extend if for the full year.
EDITORS NOTE - Jim Kuhnhenn covers the White House for the Associated Press. AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP writers Philip Elliott in Keene, N.H., and Shannon McCaffrey in Newport, N.H., contributed to this article.