Jobs report crucial to presidential election outcome

(CNN) -- Hands down, it's the most important monthly economic report in the race for the White House. And April's numbers from the Labor Department didn't provide President Obama a lot to brag about.

"After the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, our businesses have now created more than 4.2 million new jobs over the last 26 months, more than 1 million jobs in the six months alone. So that's the good news," Obama said Friday at an event in northern Virginia.

But the president went on to say, "There are still a lot of folks out of work, which means we gotta do more. If we're going to recover all the jobs lost during the recession, and if we're going to build a secure economy that strengthens the middle class, then we're going to have to do more."

Consider this: No sitting president facing an unemployment rate more than 8% has won another term since Franklin D. Roosevelt. So the headline from the Labor Department report Friday morning that the nation's unemployment level edged down from 8.2% in March to 8.1% in April sure seemed like good news for an incumbent president fighting for re-election. Especially since just about every poll indicates that the economy remains the top issue on the minds of Americans and that jobs remain the top economic concern.

But the Labor Department also reported that the number of jobs rose last month by 115,000, much lower than many economists had predicted. According to the report, 342,000 workers dropped out of the labor force, with the labor force participation rate, now at 63.6%, at its lowest level since 1981.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee was quick to react to the jobs numbers.

"It's a terrible and very disappointing report this morning. Clearly the American people are wondering why this recovery isn't happening faster, what's taking years and years for the recovery to occur. And we seem to be slowing down, not speeding up. This is not progress," Mitt Romney said Friday in an interview on Fox News just minutes after the 8:30 a.m. ET release of the Labor Department report.

"A lot of American people are having difficult times, and this is not good news this morning," added the former Massachusetts governor, who argued the reason the rate dropped was because more people are leaving the workforce.

Romney's strategy is simple: Make the election a referendum on the president's record on the economy and jobs, and argue that Obama isn't doing a good job on creating jobs.

With six months to go until Election Day, a top Republican strategist says the jobs report spells trouble for the president.

"A disappointing jobs report means two things: One, President Obama is more likely to lose his job. Now, this election will increasingly become a referendum on Obama's performance. Voters may or may not believe Mitt Romney can turn things around, but it is becoming clearer that Obama's plan isn't going to cut it," says GOP strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos.

"Two, to win, President Obama has to run the most brutal, negative, polarizing campaign in history -- on every subject but the economy. He has to pit young against old, rich against poor, women against men, and try to divide the country on other issues. I don't think that's the kind of country we want to be," said Castellanos, who was a top media adviser for Romney's 2008 nomination bid.

"Anytime you have to explain bad news, you've already lost. The Obama campaign has done the best they can with stubbornly high unemployment, talking about the number of jobs created and not the number of people who don't have jobs. But this doesn't help the general sense of unease about the economy among middle class Americans," says Rich Galen, who ran Newt Gingrich's press operation when he was speaker of the House and advised Fred Thompson's 2008 Republican presidential bid.

But be careful what you wish for, says Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Paul Begala.

"Every time there's bad economic news for the middle class, the Champagne corks pop at one of Mitt Romney's many mansions. The bad job numbers are bad news for President Obama -- and for all Americans. So the GOP has to be careful not to celebrate bad times," says Begala, who was a top adviser in the Clinton White House and who now is a senior adviser to Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC.

So which candidate does the public think will do a better job turning things around?

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted last month indicated that Americans were split on which candidate could best jumpstart the economy, with 44% saying Obama would be more likely to get the economy moving and 42% saying that Romney would do a better job to stimulate the economy.

But the race for the White House is a battle for states and their electoral votes. And in two of the biggest and arguably most important battleground states, new surveys from Quinnipiac University indicate that when it comes to the economy, Romney has a slight advantage over the president.

Keep your eyes on the monthly unemployment reports between now and November. The numbers will be extremely telling.