Bad news for Republicans today. The last thing they want to hear is that the economy is steadily healing on Barack Obama's watch.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in January (the fifth straight monthly decline, and the lowest rate since February '09); that private employers added nearly a quarter of a million jobs (roughly twice the number that economists had anticipated); that the growth occurred across the board, "with large employment gains in professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and manufacturing." The 2011 economy added 200,000 more jobs than the feds originally calculated, and total job growth last year (1.82 million) was twice the tally of the previous year.

Good news is surely worrisome for the Republicans, most notably their presidential candidates. They're banking on jobless misery, and hoping to cash in at the polls in November - but if things keep getting better in 2012, whatever will they do?

Yes, the recovery remains fragile and the odds are exceedingly long that the economy will be performing with gusto on the day Obama stands for re-election, but, as history teaches us, what matters most is the trend line. If swing voters perceive that the economy is on the incremental upswing, Obama's prospects for a second term will rise accordingly. Typically, this perception has to take hold by June in order to help an incumbent in November. Obama appears to be far ahead on that calendar metric; barring an economic setback, the upward trend line could be particularly beneficial for Obama in places like Pennsylvania and in the critical Rustbelt swing states.

The guy most potentially imperiled by an upward trend line is Mitt Romney. He has staked his candidacy on the continuation of gloom and doom, on his contention that only he knows how to put people back to work. If these monthly jobs reports keep coming up roses for Obama, what is Romney's raison d'etre?

Classic case in point: In Nevada yesterday, Romney said of Obama, "He’s frequently telling us that he did not cause the recession, and that’s true. But he made it worse." Yet today, there's fresh evidence that the recession has not been made worse; that, on the contrary, the economy is steadily getting better.

It's also worth noting that Romney is lying when he says Obama made the recession "worse."

The recession, which had its roots in the George W. Bush era, reached its nadir during the first six months of 2009, with a net loss of 3.89 million jobs. That's what landed in Obama's lap. But if he had indeed made the recession "worse," by definition we would still be suffering net job losses. Instead, millions of private sector jobs have been added since mid-2009 - a net growth of 2.2 million in the last 12 months, according to federal figures. Yes, the recovery has been slow. But the trend line is clear; indeed, the private sector has added jobs for the last 23 straight months.

Those facts are at odds with Romney's claim that Obama has made the recession "worse," which may even explain why Romney has occasionally dropped the claim from his rhetorical repertoire. He first said it during his candidacy announcement last June (when Obama "took office, the economy was in recession, and he made it worse"), then repeated it during a debate (Obama "did not cause this recession, but he made it worse"), then said it again a few days later (Obama "did not cause this recession, but he made it worse").

But on June 30, an amusing incident occurred. An NBC News producer asked Romney how he could rationally claim that Obama had made the recession "worse," given the fact that (a) the economy was slowly growing (b) the Dow had long emerged from its '09 nadir, and (c) the jobless rate was a full percentage point lower than in October '09.

Care to guess what Romney said in reply?

"I didn't say that things are worse."

Betcha $10,000 that he did. And yesterday, he was back to saying it again - only to look foolish when the stats came out today.

 

Romney, if nominated, may well run a very competitive race this fall, but he's in the weird position of rooting for a return to misery. Understandably so, because it's far tougher for a challenger to get traction when the stats are consistently bullish. As John Adams famously said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

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