Editorial: Newest economic news may be good enough for President Barack Obama

For President Barack Obama's re-election hopes, it has always been a race between the economy and Election Day.

Would the economy improve enough by Nov. 6 so that the White House could point to signs of real economic improvement as voters went to the polls?

New figures show that Obama may have won that race -- but just barely. A spate of economic statistics out Thursday was politically positive even if economically a little short of indicating robust economic growth.

The Conference Board's index of consumer confidence, a widely recognized measure, rose to 72.2 in October, up from 68.4 in September and at its highest point since February 2008, when the economy really started to tank. It's also up from 40.9 a year ago, marking the biggest one-year increase in 18 years. But it's still below 90, a number that indicates a strong economy.

Construction spending rose 0.6 percent in September over the previous month, pushed by a 2.8 percent increase in home building. Spending on commercial construction was flat, but home construction is the more important to an economic recovery. Spending on residential construction was up 21 percent from a year ago. The lowest mortgage rates since 1971 helped boost the sales and prices of new and existing homes.

Manufacturing increased for the second straight month, rising to 51.7 on the Institute for Supply Management's index of factory activity. Anything above 50 is positive territory.

Meanwhile, worker productivity increased only 1.9 percent from July through September -- a good sign, in a curious way, because it means employers have probably gotten as much as they can out of their existing workforces and will have to start hiring to keep up with demand.

Retail sales were up 5 percent in October over the previous year, according to a survey of retail chains, better than forecast and an indicator that may improve as stores stock up to meet post-Sandy demand and replenish merchandise destroyed by the hurricane.

The October jobs report , due out Friday, is expected to show a slight rise in the jobless rate, now at 7.8 percent, as unemployed workers who've been sitting out the recession resume looking for work.

But Superstorm Sandy -- which provided the president with a new best friend in Chris Christie, New Jersey governor and Romney surrogate -- is likely to blunt the impact of the unemployment figures, in part because the widespread devastation promises ample opportunity for work in what is likely to be a massive rebuilding effort.

Voters, especially those looking for jobs or better jobs, are not interested in explanations. They want good news. This economic news, while far from great, may be just good enough to see Barack Obama through Tuesday.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)

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