An awful report would have aided Romney; a great one would have boosted Obama. But the more-of-the-same result means the race stays murky.
The July jobs report was a heavy dose of Nothing's Changed, for the U.S. economy and the presidential campaign.
The report showed the economy added 163,000 net jobs last month, per the Labor Department's survey of business payrolls; a separate survey of households showed nearly 200,000 job losses, pushing the unemployment rate up from 8.2 percent to 8.3 percent. Read those numbers thus: The economy is very slowly healing; the pace of recovery isn't picking up; and, with a big caveat about Europe, we don't look headed back toward recession anytime soon.
As Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, put it in a snap reaction on Friday morning: "The data are consistent with an economy that, while not growing strongly, is not continuing to weaken sharply either."
To paraphrase Newton, economies in motion tend to stay in motion, especially when fiscal and monetary policymakers refuse to boost them -- and unless foreign fiscal crises blow up and stop them cold. That's what we've got here: Growth that isn't good enough, and isn't getting much better, but is still, for now, growth.
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It looks increasingly likely, three months from Election Day, that this is the economic picture that will stick in voters' minds when they select their next president. It does not appear to be the sort of picture that will tip the election either to President Obama or his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. A late-summer surge in hiring might have given an edge to the incumbent. A return to recession would be lifting the challenger.
Instead, the race is a dead heat in most national polls. Weak growth and persistently high unemployment remain the fundamental reasons Obama could lose re-election. But the data suggest that weakness, by itself, might not be enough to put Romney over the top.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month showed 53 percent of likely voters disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy. Only 27 percent of respondents expect economic conditions to improve in the next year. Romney tops Obama, 43 percent to 36 percent, on the question of which candidate has good ideas for improving the economy.
For all that, Obama led in the poll, 49 percent to 43 percent.
There's a chance the horse race will swing, late in the campaign, to line up with the economic questions -- that Romney just needs time to capitalize on his advantage on the clear No. 1 issue of this election.
There's also a chance that the economy, on its present course, is not by itself sufficient to defeat Obama. In that case, the election will come down to any number of items on voters' scorecards, including campaign tactics or candidate likability.
The fundamentals at this point still favor Romney. But his campaign would be wise to spend some time this week watching Olympic boxing bouts on CNBC. Several times already, one fighter has appeared to television commentators to have won a clear victory -- only for the judges to raise his opponent's hand in the end. When you don't knock the other guy out, that's always the risk.