By DAVID LEONHARDT
Friday’s jobs report, after weeks of other good data, makes it reasonable to wonder whether the economy may turn out to be less of a drag on President Obama’s re-election campaign than has long been expected.
The economy has added 1.5 million jobs over the last year, and the pace seems to be picking up. The unemployment rate last month, 8.5 percent, was at its lowest level since February 2009, Mr. Obama’s first full month in office.
Of course, the economy has been here before, only to fall back again. In both early 2010 and early 2011, job growth picked up briefly, before the continuing global financial crisis — including Europe’s problems — again reasserted itself.
The White House made the mistake of reacting too quickly and positively to some of that earlier news. It went so far as to refer to the summer of 2010 as “recovery summer.”
In recent weeks, Mr. Obama and his aides have mostly opted for a more subdued strategy. They note the good news, though they say there is a long way to go, and urge Congress to extend the payroll tax cut and pass other parts of the president’s jobs bill.
“Today’s employment report provides further evidence that the economy is continuing to heal from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,” Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement Friday morning. But, he added, “as the Administration always stresses, it is important not to read too much into any one monthly report.”
And the economy clearly remains a problem for Mr. Obama. Shortly after the release of the jobs report, Mitt Romney, the winner of this week’s Republican caucus in Iowa, said at a campaign stop in South Carolina, “This president doesn’t understand how the economy works.”
The big question is whether the economy will continue to improve. The recent job growth, on its own, is not enough to keep unemployment falling at a significant pace.
But there is some reason for optimism. The Labor Department conducts two surveys each month, one of households and one of businesses. The business survey produces the widely cited number on job changes — 200,000 in December.
The household survey, although usually more volatile, can sometimes provide a more accurate estimate at turning points. It often captures jobs at new companies that are not included in the business survey.
Over the past six months, the household survey shows an average monthly gain of about 230,000, compared with a gain of only 142,000 in the business survey. Normal population growth means that the economy needs to add between 125,000 and 150,000 a month to keep unemployment from rising.
If the household survey is really the more accurate one, the good news on jobs may well continue, complicating a central point in the Republican case against Mr. Obama.
On the other hand, some of the recent strength comes from the restocking of warehouses, which will not continue. Europe still has not solved its problems. The troubles in Iran could cause oil prices to jump. And American businesses and consumers, still scarred by the financial crisis, are probably still easy to scare.
No one knows what the economy is going to do in 2012, but the chances of it improving markedly are higher than they were a couple of months ago.