By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - It could be worse.
It's a message that President Obama's campaign is unlikely to put on a bumper sticker, but increasingly it appears to be at the heart of Team Obama's effort to cast doubt about the likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney, while simultaneously explaining why the U.S. economy continues to struggle to gain steam.
This morning, the Labor Department announced 163,000 jobs were added to payrolls in July, while the unemployment rate ticked up from 8.2% to 8.3%. The numbers were better than most analysts were predicting ahead of the release of the jobs report, but it's hardly the kind of data Obama needs to bolster his position with voters that he's better equipped to handle the economy than his rival.
"Let's acknowledge, we have too many folks out there looking for work," Obama said after the jobs report came out. "We've got more work to do on their behalf - not only to reclaim all the jobs that were lost in the recession, but also to reclaim the kind of financial security that too many Americans felt was slipping away from them for too long."
In recent days, Obama and his team have emphasized their disappointment in the state of the economy, while at the same time heralding strides they've made to shore up an economy that at the beginning of his term was teetering near collapse.
Now, Obama says, the next step to powering the economy is to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, while letting them expire for the wealthiest Americans - a move that Obama insists will help working families and reduce deficits. Romney wants to expand tax cuts even further by reducing marginal tax rates by 20% across the board.
The Romney way would be a repeat of the sort of Bush-era policies that touched off recession that the country is still trying to climb its way out of, Obama argues.
"We are not going to get to where we need to be if we go back to the policies that helped to create this mess in the first place," he said.
The Romney campaign retorts that the Obama economy has been a disaster for the middle class - median household income is down $2,900 and average weekly wages dipped last year for only the fifth time since 1978. And today's report shows unemployment rose in 90% of U.S. cities, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul notes.
Last week, Obama said during a campaign event in Oakland: "We've tried our plan, and it worked."
Romney and his surrogates immediately glommed onto today's numbers as evidence that it hasn't.
"Today's increase in the unemployment rate is a hammer blow to struggling middle-class families," Romney said in a statement.