WASHINGTON — The U.S. unemployment rate dropped below 8 percent for the first time since the month President Barack Obama took office.
The rate, the most-watched measure of the country's economic health, fell to 7.8 percent in September from 8.1 percent in August. A government survey of households found 873,000 more people had jobs, the biggest jump since January 2003.
The government's other monthly survey, of employers, showed they added a modest 114,000 jobs in September, but it also showed job growth in July and August was stronger than first thought.
Obama, eager to shift focus from a disappointing performance at the first presidential debate, said the report showed the nation “has come too far to turn back now.”
His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, countered: “This is not what a real recovery looks like.”
The drop brought the jobless rate to where it was when Obama was sworn in, in January 2009, and snapped a 43-month streak in which unemployment was 8 percent or higher.
The October jobs report comes out Nov. 2, four days before the election, so Friday's report gives one of the final economic snapshots as undecided voters make up their minds.
The government calculates the unemployment rate by calling 60,000 households and asking whether the adults have jobs and whether those who don't are looking.
Those who do not have jobs and are looking are counted as unemployed. Those who aren't looking are not considered part of the work force and aren't counted as unemployed.
A separate monthly survey seeks information from 140,000 companies and government agencies that together employ about one in three nonfarm workers in the nation. That survey found the economy added 114,000 jobs in September, the fewest since June. Most of the growth came in service businesses such as health care and restaurants.
The Labor Department raised its job-creation figures by a total of 86,000 jobs for July and August. The July figure was revised from 141,000 to 181,000, and the August figure from 96,000 to 142,000.
Taken together, the two surveys suggest the job situation in the nation is better than was thought.
Economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors, called the strong employment reports “a shocker” that showed the job market was sturdier than most economists had thought.
Financial markets seemed less impressed. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed as much as 86 points in early trading but drifted lower for most of the rest of the day. It finished up 34 points at 13,610. The Standard & Poor's 500 index, a broader measure, was down a fraction of a point.
Stock indexes have been trading at or near their highest levels since December 2007, the month the Great Recession began. They have gotten a lift from Federal Reserve efforts to stimulate the economy, and by a European Central Bank plan to buy the bonds of financially troubled countries to ease a debt crisis there.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note climbed by 0.06 percentage point to 1.73 percent, a sign that investors were more willing to embrace risk.
The unemployment figures were so surprisingly strong that some pundits and at least one member of Congress, Florida Republican Allen West, accused the Obama administration of manipulating the statistics to help the president.
But the unemployment data is calculated by a government agency, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, under tight security and with no oversight or input from the White House.
Keith Hall, a former commissioner of that bureau who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said the numbers could not have been manipulated.
“It's impossible to do it and get away with it,” he said. “These numbers are very trustworthy.”
Economists offered reasons not to read too much into them, though. Most of the increase in employed Americans came from those who had to settle for part-time work: 582,000 more people reported they were working part-time last month but wanted full-time jobs. That is the biggest increase in so-called underemployed Americans since February 2009, during the depths of the Great Recession.
Economic troubles in Europe and Asia may be taking a toll on U.S. factories. Manufacturing employment dropped by 16,000 in September after falling 22,000 in August.
Factory hiring had been a source of economic strength the past two years: Factory jobs rose last year at the fastest pace since 1997. But Europe's ongoing economic crisis, along with a slowdown in China, means demand for U.S.-made goods is drying up.
The unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009. But a big part of the drop over the past three years came because so many Americans stopped looking for work, so they weren't counted as unemployed.
Some were retiring baby boomers. Others were so discouraged by the weak job market that they quit putting out resumes.
Economists were pleased with September's drop in unemployment because it happened for the right reasons: More Americans got jobs. And the work force grew by 418,000, the most since February, suggesting people are more optimistic about finding jobs. Because 873,000 more people did find work, the number of unemployed fell by 456,000. And that decline pushed the unemployment rate down.