Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON - The sharp slowdown in hiring stunned President Obama's worried campaign strategists Friday, fueling deeper doubts about a second term.

The bleak jobs report and a new election poll struck the White House with a politically withering, one-two punch. The Obama economy created only 120,000 jobs in March, not enough to even keep up with population growth. And a Washington Post poll shows more Americans now trust likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to handle the economy than Barack Obama by 47 percent to 43 percent.

Obama's weak, persistently high unemployment economy remains the overwhelming issue in this election. Nothing else comes close.

Its power was reflected in Monday's daily Gallup poll that showed his job approval numbers sinking to 45 percent approval versus 46 percent disapproval.

The employment numbers showed the jobless rate edging down to 8.2 percent, because 133,000 long unemployed adults were so discouraged they stopped looking for work and thus were not counted as being in the labor force.

Actually, the jobs picture was even bleaker than the one the network news programs reported last week. When you deduct jobs in the heavily subsidized health care industry and the temporary work services, the private sector really added only 98,000 jobs in March.

"Factoring in those discouraged adults and others working part time for lack of full time opportunities, the unemployment rate is about 14.5 percent," calculates University of Maryland economist Peter Morici.

Throw in college graduates who are in low skill jobs in counter work and waiting tables because they can't find livable employment, and the rate is closer to 18 percent.

"Prospects for lowering those dreadful statistics remain slim. The economy must add 13.0 million jobs over the next three years -- 362,000 each month -- to bring the unemployment rate down to 6 percent," Morici says.

That would require the economy to grow at 1980s-style, Reagan recovery growth rates. But not even Obama's economic advisers believe that's going to happen in seven months before the November election.

It's not a number you ever hear mentioned by Obama or his campaign strategists, or even his economic advisers, but the economy grew at a snail's pace 1.7 percent last year, and isn't expected to do much better than an anemic 2 percent rate this year.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.