(AP) SANDUSKY, Ohio - Campaigning by bus through swing state Ohio, President Barack Obama cast his re-election bid as a bet on the American worker Thursday, even as he braced for a Friday unemployment report that will help set battle lines for the hot summer to come.
The monthly unemployment numbers could alter or harden voters' views of Obama's core re-election argument that he pulled the U.S. back from recession while Republican Mitt Romney embraces policies that led to an economic near-collapse. A weak report could undermine Obama's position, while improvement could help the president -- though concerns about jobs are sure to a major issue through Election Day
US hiring likely improved only modestly in June
Hiring likely picked up slightly in June after sputtering in April and May. But the gains aren't expected to be enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Analysts forecast that the economy gained only 90,000 jobs last month, according to a survey by FactSet. It would mark a third straight month of weak job growth. The unemployment rate is expected to remain at 8.2 percent.
The Labor Department will report on June hiring and unemployment at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time Friday.
Some economists grew more optimistic on Thursday after a pair of reports signaled improvement in the job market last month. The government said fewer people applied for unemployment benefits for the second straight week. And payroll provider ADP said businesses added 176,000 jobs last month, up from its reported gain of 136,000 jobs in May.
Goldman Sachs responded to the better data by raising its forecast to a gain of 125,000 jobs last month, up from its initial prediction of 75,000.
Still, the economy and the job market remain lackluster. Even a gain of 125,000 jobs is only enough, over time, to keep up with population growth and prevent the unemployment rate from rising.
In April and May, employers added an average of just 73,000 jobs. That was far fewer than the 226,000 a month added in the first three months of the year. And it's far too low to reduce the unemployment rate.
Another weak month of hiring could benefit Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. President Barack Obama is expected to face voters with the highest unemployment rate of any president since the Great Depression, and the economy is the top issue for many voters.
Dismal June job figures could also prompt the Federal Reserve to take further action to try to boost the economy. The Fed last month downgraded its economic outlook for 2012. It predicted growth of just 1.9 percent to 2.4 percent for the year and little change in the unemployment rate.
Despite the gloom, American factories and service firms kept hiring in June, according to surveys by the Institute for Supply Management. Economists say that suggests many companies don't think the slowdown in hiring this spring will endure.
"It is beginning to look like the labor market is not nearly as weak as feared," Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors, said in a note to clients.
Hiring is crucial to consumers, who are losing confidence in the economy and whose pay is scarcely rising. They have pulled back on spending in the past two months, even though gas prices have fallen roughly 60 cents a gallon, on average, since early April. Consumer spending drives about 70 percent of the economic activity.
And Europe's debt crisis threatened to hold back U.S. growth further. Exports to Europe have fallen in recent months, hurting U.S. manufacturing, a key source of growth since the recession officially ended three years ago. In June, manufacturing shrank for the first time in nearly three years, according to ISM.
The European Central Bank cut its key interest rate by a quarter-point to a record low 0.75 percent Thursday in an effort to boost Europe's flagging economy. The central bank also cut the rate it pays to commercial banks on overnight deposits to zero. That is intended to push banks to lend more rather than hold reserves at the ECB.
In addition, Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, said the economy in the 17 nations that use the euro would recover only gradually and the risks "continue to be on the downside." He also suggested the interest rate cut would only have a limited impact on the economy
"This is how summer is supposed to feel," Obama said, wiping sweat from his face he campaigned under scorching sun for four more years in office.
His trip through northern Ohio gave him a post-July 4 splash of Americana: Main streets and U.S. flags, cornfields and fruit stands, community soccer sign-ups and American Legion halls, small children climbing on fathers' shoulders to see the president's bus go by. Obama was greeted kindly wherever he went and bounded through his day, high-fiving the kids and hugging grandmothers.
Romney rolled his own bus tour through six states last month, including the two Obama is visiting this week. And more are certain to come in the next few months for both candidates.
As he kicked off Thursday's 250-mile trip in Maumee, Ohio, Obama said he had "refused to turn my back on communities like this one."
Romney, chiming in from his family vacation in New Hampshire, criticized Obama for hitting the road with "no new answers" on the economy.
The president, speaking at an early 19th-century museum complex dotted with red-white-and-blue bunting and American flags, claimed credit for Ohio's improving economy, especially its rejuvenated automobile industry. The White House said the Obama-backed auto bailout helped dramatically increase sales of Chrysler's Jeep Wrangler and Liberty, made in nearby Toledo.
Obama said Ohio's economic gains could be replicated nationwide.
"There are some folks who are betting that you will lose interest, that are betting that somehow you are going to lose heart," Obama said. "I'm betting you're not going to lose interest. I'm betting you're not going to lose heart. I still believe on you, I'm betting on you."
In an economic appeal to working class voters, the president also announced his administration was launching an unfair trade complaint against China with the World Trade Organization. The complaint centers on new Chinese duties on American-made cars that the U.S. contends violate international trade rules.
As his day of campaigning stretched into dusk, Obama took a fresh shot at Romney on taxes, saying the Republican's plan would cut taxes for the wealthy at the expense of education spending and health care for the elderly.
"I don't need a tax cut. Mr. Romney sure doesn't need a tax cut," Obama said in Parma.
And Obama defended his health care overhaul during his first campaign appearance since the law was upheld by the Supreme Court.
"The law I passed is here to stay," he said. "It is going to make the vast majority of Americans more secure."
Romney has vowed to repeal the health care overhaul if elected, and Republicans believe that position can be a winning one. But much of the attention since the ruling last week has been on debate within the party over whether the law's insurance mandate is a tax or a penalty. A tax, Romney said Wednesday, contradicting an adviser's comments of a few days earlier.
Friday's jobs report was on many minds, too. Obama aides have been anxiously awaiting the new numbers, which follow a dismal May report that showed an uptick in the unemployment rate to 8.2 percent and raised concerns about a further economic slowdown.
The latest economic indicators have been mixed. U.S. manufacturing shrank in June for the first time in nearly three years, according to a report this week. Private payroll provider ADP reported Thursday that U.S. businesses added 176,000 jobs last month, better than the revised total of 136,000 jobs it reported for May. But shoppers pulled back on spending in June, leading to sluggish retail sales during the month.
Obama already faces an uphill battle convincing some voters he is the right steward for the economy. An Associated Press-GfK poll released last month found that more than half of those surveyed, 52 percent, disapproved of his handling of unemployment, compared with 45 percent who approved.
Some Ohio voters said the auto bailout was still a plus for Obama. "The bailout will certainly help him. It's definitely working," said Linda Schneider of Maumee.
But Thomas Hutton of Toledo said it the bailout would not be a defining campaign issue. "It's a side issue. The big ones are the economy and health care," he said.
Republicans dispatched former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, two potential vice presidential nominees, to counter Obama's appeal to voters in some of the same towns where the president was stopping.
"We should all bet on the country, but we shouldn't double down on Barack Obama," Pawlenty said Thursday. "He's had his chance. It's not working. And we need to get it moving in a different direction."
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, yet another potential Romney running mate, wrote a column in an Ohio newspaper Thursday accusing Obama of implementing policies that "make it harder, not easier, to create jobs here in Ohio and around the country."
The bus trip marked a new phase of Obama's re-election campaign as he takes a more retail-oriented approach before the September Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. Among his events in Ohio Thursday was an ice cream social in Sandusky and remarks in a park in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland.
Obama, dressed casually in a short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants, sprinkled his campaign speeches with personal references, telling the crowd about his oldest daughter Malia's 14th birthday and promising his popular wife Michelle Obama would come see them in Ohio soon.
As Obama made his way from Maumee to Sandusky, Ohio, he made an unannounced stop at Kozy Corners, a diner in the town of Oak Harbor, where he greeted the lunchtime crowd. He bought fruit at a roadside stand along the shores of Lake Erie, where he picked up a dozen ears of corn, plus some peaches and cherries. And he drank a beer at a bar in Amherst and chatted with patrons.
Obama also sought to extend the reach of his bus tour by taping interviews with six Ohio TV stations.
Friday's schedule includes a stop at an elementary school in Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown, followed by a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Recent polls by Quinnipiac University found that Obama held a 9-percentage-point lead over Romney in Ohio and a 6-point lead in Pennsylvania. Obama won both states in the 2008 election.