The US economy added 171,000 jobs in October, beating economists’ predictions of 125,000 new jobs and, if not adding a boost to President Obama’s re-election campaign, at least denying Mitt Romney any real ammunition.
The unemployment rate ticked up a statistically insignificant 0.1 percent, to 7.9 percent, which is a full point lower  that what it was one year ago. The slight increase was a result of more people entering the workforce looking for work—which is a promising sign. (Though, even with the increase, the labor force participation rate hasn’t been this low since the early 1980s .)
Other good news: the economy is clearly improving from where it was earlier this year. The August and September numbers were revised upwards, meaning 173,000 jobs were added on average per month over the last four months, compared with 67,000 in the previous quarter. Manufacturing added 13,000 jobs in October, stopping a slide the previous two months (when 13,000 and 14,000 manufacturing jobs were lost) and overall this year factory employment is up 189,000 jobs. Virtually every sector saw gains: the professional services, retail and hospitality all ticked upwards as well. There have now been thirty-two straight months with private-sector job creation.
Alas, the public sector continues to suffer. Last month it lost 13,000 jobs. State and local payrolls do not seem to be recovering from the downturn’s brutal losses, remaining at best stagnant. There was other bad news as well: today’s report showed an alternative unemployment rate—that is, including people who are working part-time while looking for full-time work—to be 14.6 percent. That’s 5.8 percent higher  than the start of the recession, and it means that altogether, 23 million people are unemployed or underemployed. Long-term unemployment is also still deeply troubling: 40.6 percent of the 12.3 million unemployed have been looking for work for twenty-seven weeks or longer, far surpassing  any recent pre-recession historical benchmark for those measures.
As far as the presidential election goes, this report is much more blip than game-changer: it shows steady, but insufficient, progress. Both campaigns can work with that. Said  Obama in Ohio this morning: “We’ve made real progress, but we’re here today because we know we have more work to do.” Meanwhile, Romney put out a statement  promising better than just sluggish growth: “When I’m president, I’m going to make real changes that lead to a real recovery, so that the next four years are better than the last.”
Where the candidates agree—and where they are both right—is that this level of job growth is simply not good enough. At this rate, it would still take a decade to reach full employment. Widespread economic pain for millions of families shouldn’t be allowed to persist for that long, certainly in a country with as many resources as the United States.
Where the candidates differ sharply is their approach to fixing that problem. Obama has laid out his plans: stimulative measures like the American Jobs Act, which analysts  say would add 2 million jobs to the economy. In interviews , he has also made it clear that infrastructure investments will be a top priority in his second term. Romney’s approach, meanwhile, is austerity: dramatically reduced federal spending  and a balanced federal budget . He also wants lower taxes and less regulation.
Next week’s election is a clear referendum between these to very different approaches—one that, by most analyses, Obama will win. In an ideal world, Tuesday’s vote would settle the question and Obama could aggressively move forward with implementing his approach. The situation demands it; sub-200,000 job monthly growth cannot be the norm.
The recent history of gridlock in Washington suggests it won’t be so easy—but Obama should act aggressively on his mandate of investment, and cement the country’s rejection of austerity.
Greg Mitchell writes  that the October jobs report destroys right-wing claims that the numbers are “cooked.”