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Economic bright spots not a sure boost for Obama

By JIM KUHNHENN

WASHINGTON (AP) a¿¿ To a struggling White House, the economy that was supposed to be a political millstone is losing some drag.

During Barack Obama's presidency, pocketbook worries have been the dominant issue with Americans. But an uptick in growth and a downturn in unemployment give him a stronger story line going into the 2014 congressional election year and provide Democrats with a counterpoint to Republican attacks on Obama's health law.

The economy has pushed ahead despite a government shutdown, edge-of-the-cliff deals on the debt, and indiscriminate budget cuts that were supposed to hold back the recovery.

Yet to the surprise to many, virtually every single important economic indicator has brightened.

The unemployment rate dropped to a 5-year-low of 7 percent in November, employers created 203,000 jobs, the stock market is roaring, home purchases are up, and manufacturing grew last month at the fastest pace in 2A1/2 years.

But Obama's fortunes have seesawed for months, marked by ups and downs on foreign and domestic policy. Whether this economic trend accelerates remains to be seen.

What's more, voter opinions about the economy typically lag behind signs of improvement.

"If the trend line continues you have to assume that has to catch," Republican pollster Wes Anderson said. "If that's the case, people will feel better about the economy some time next summer."

That's a big if.

Economists still predict that the pace of the recovery will improve in 2014. But there are weaknesses in the jobs numbers, notably that 4.1 million Americans have been jobless for 27 weeks or more, and the average length of joblessness rose from 36.1 weeks in October to 37.2 in November.

News that the economy grew at a 3.6 percent annual clip from July through September, the fastest since early 2012, was tempered by the fact that nearly half the growth came from a potentially temporary buildup in business stockpiles.

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