WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama got new figures Friday to buttress his argument that he's presiding over steady, if slow, economic growth. But the government's report that the overall rate of unemployment actually crept up to 8.3 percent allows Republican rival Mitt Romney to keep pressure on Obama to defend his record.
The new unemployment numbers showed that private employers added 163,000 jobs in July, the best pace of hiring in five months. The jobless rate rose, however, to 8.3 percent from 8.2. percent in June. And Romney jumped on it, calling the figures a "hammer blow" to middle-class families.
No U.S. president since World War II has faced re-election with unemployment over 8 percent.
Obama was expected to comment on the new jobs numbers later Friday morning at a White House event on middle class tax cuts. Romney was campaigning Friday in Nevada, the state with the nation's highest unemployment rate, before heading to fundraise in Idaho.
Romney released a statement shortly after the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the new figures for July.
Romney says Americans deserve better than an unemployment rate that stays stubbornly stuck above 8 percent. He says Obama "doesn't have a plan" for boosting growth and said that his economic plan would create 1.2 million new jobs by the end of his first term.
The candidates sparred from afar on the economy Thursday. Romney, campaigning in Colorado, said his economic program would create 12 million jobs in the next four years. Obama told voters in Florida that his rival favors "trickle-down tax cut fairy dust" that has failed to fix the economy in the past.
Romney's plan for job growth included several broad ideas but few specifics. He said he would help small business owners, cut spending to reduce the deficit and cut taxes.
Obama sought this week to draw a contrast with Romney on taxes, saying the Republican's call for extending cuts for upper-income earners would mean higher tax bills for the middle class. The president's new television ad made the case with a highly personalized message: Romney has paid a lower proportion of his income in taxes than many people of lesser means.
Obama planned to hammer his tax message again on Friday by calling on Congress to extend tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year before those cuts expire at the end of the year. The president wants to end the tax cuts, first enacted under President George W. Bush, for families making more than $250,000.
While the overall race for the White House remains deadlocked, several polls show Romney with an advantage over Obama on economic issues. A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted in late July found 50 percent of Americans said Romney is the candidate who would be better at job creation, with 44 percent siding with Obama.
Economists set modest expectations for Friday's jobs report. They expected the economy to have generated just 100,000 jobs last month, which would likely keep the unemployment rate at 8.2 percent.
The trajectory of late hasn't given the Obama White House anything to celebrate.
The American economy grew at a listless 1.5 percent annual pace from April through June, even slower than the 2 percent rate in the first three months of the year.
The economy added only 80,000 jobs in June, erasing any doubt that the United States is in a summer slump for the third year in a row. From April through June, the economy produced an average of just 75,000 jobs a month, the weakest three months since August through October 2010.
The slide comes after the optimism of early 2012, when the first three months of job growth averaged more than 225,000 a month.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Aspen, Colo., and Ben Feller in Washington and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius in Washington contributed to this report.