CNN -- President Barack Obama downplayed a weak jobs report Friday as he wrapped up a two-day bus tour to critical states in the November election, while Republicans pounced on the news to declare the president's policies have failed.
Stock prices plunged on the report that the economy created 80,000 jobs in June, well below the number needed to bring down the 8.2% unemployment rate.
At a campaign event in Poland, Ohio, Obama said the job growth -- while smaller than needed -- continued a trend that has added 4.4 million jobs in the past 28 months following what he called "the worst economic crisis of our lifetime."
"That's a step in the right direction," Obama contended.
Republicans, however, called the weak growth a result of Obama policies that don't work.
Certain GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney called the jobs figures a "kick in the gut for middle-class families," blaming Obama's policies for continued high unemployment and saying it was "time for Americans to choose whether they want more of the same."
"His policies have not worked," Romney said at a brief news conference in New Hampshire, where he is vacationing with his family.
Referring to more than three years of unemployment higher than 8%, Romney said "the evidence is in, again and again and again" and added that the continuing high unemployment rate "pretty much defines lack of success."
Other Republican leaders echoed Romney's remarks, with House Speaker John Boehner taking a jab at Obama's comment last month that when compared to public sector job creation, the private sector was "doing fine."
"Today's report shows the private sector clearly isn't 'doing fine' and that President Obama's policies have failed," Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus' statement said, "The Obama economy is defined by chronically high unemployment."
Also Friday, an independent group co-founded by conservative operative Karl Rove said it was launching a new ad targeting what it claimed were Obama's excuses for the bad economy.
Crossroads GPS said the spot was the first wave of a $25 million ad buy starting July 10 and running through early August in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia -- all swing states that both Democrats and Republicans will heavily contest in the presidential election.
In speeches in Ohio and Pennsylvania to conclude the bus tour, Obama referred to the negative ads by Republicans and told supporters not to get discouraged.
"You'll hear the same thing from them over and over again, because they know that their economic theory isn't going to sell," the president told a Pittsburgh event. "So all they've got to argue is the economy's not moving as fast as it needs to. Jobs aren't growing as fast as they need to. And it's all Obama's fault. That's basically their only message."
Obama briefly mentioned the new jobs report in Ohio and didn't refer to it specifically in Pittsburgh. Instead, his full-fledged campaign speeches emphasized restoring opportunity for the middle class, in contrast to what he characterized as Republican policies that favor corporations and the wealthy.
In Ohio, Obama joked with the crowd, kissed at least one baby and outlined his vision of middle-class opportunity while making sure to note his administration's help in reviving the U.S. auto industry, which is big in the state.
He rebuffed GOP criticism that his policies are wrong, blaming political stalemate in Washington for the failure by Congress to pass needed job creation measures he has endorsed, such as ending tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas.
"This election is about how we break that stalemate," Obama said. "It's in your power to break the stalemate."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, accused congressional Republicans of obstructing economic progress by focusing on partisan politics, such as a planned House vote next week to repeal the health care reform law in what would be a purely symbolic gesture.
"It's time for Republicans to abandon their agenda of obstruction and delay, and work with Democrats to create jobs and strengthen the middle class," said a statement by Pelosi, D-California.
Republicans accuse Democrats of similar tactics against measures passed by the GOP-majority House that have died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
However, former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman publicly criticized his party Friday for failing to focus "on a bigger, bolder, more confident future for the United States -- future based on problem solving, inclusiveness, and a willingness to address the trust deficit, which is every bit as corrosive as our fiscal and economic deficits."
In a statement announcing he won't attend the GOP convention in August, Huntsman called for "a return to the party we have been in the past, from Lincoln right on through to Reagan, that was always willing to put our country before politics."
After Obama returns to Washington on Friday afternoon, he will sign a giant transportation bill that includes funding for road and bridge construction and repairs -- a component of Obama's jobs plan that Congress passed last week as part of a package that included holding down interest rates on federal student loans.
Both components were top priorities for Obama and passed after lengthy negotiations in Congress that were delayed by partisan posturing.
All polling so far shows a tight race between Obama and Romney, and that voters consider the economy the top issue.
Obama contends the economy continues to show slow growth after the deep recession he inherited, while Romney argues the president's policies deter job creation.
In his remarks Friday, Romney specified what he called excessive corporate taxes and regulatory burdens as the main culprits.
"The president's policies have not got America working again," Romney said. "The president's going to have to stand up and take responsibility for it."
Obama, however, said the policies espoused by Romney and Republicans -- such as cutting taxes and removing regulations -- failed under the Bush administration and only would help the rich get richer while keeping the middle class stagnant or worse.
"We saw us fighting two wars on a credit card," Obama said of what happened before he took office. "The tax cuts turned a surplus into a deficit and the lack of regulation resulted in what happened on Wall Street and we ended up with the biggest crisis we have ever seen. It ain't right. It is not a smart theory."
At the heart of the issue are the differing philosophies of the two parties, with Obama and Democrats advocating a combination of strategic spending, increased revenue and entitlement reforms to reduce budget deficits and the national debt while Romney and Republicans focus on shrinking government.
Health care reform also has emerged as a major point of contention, especially after last week's Supreme Court ruling that upheld the signature legislation of Obama's presidency so far.
The Romney campaign has been dogged by conflicting stances on the issue, which is a vulnerability for the former Massachusetts governor who implemented a similar plan in the state but now calls for repeal of the federal law known as Obamacare.
GOP leaders emphasized that the high court ruling that the law's most controversial section -- the individual mandate requiring people to have health insurance -- amounted to a kind of tax was evidence that Obama deceived the nation in 2009 by denying it was a tax increase.
However, a top Romney adviser -- seeking to protect the candidate from Democratic charges that he implemented a similar tax increase in Massachusetts -- insisted that the individual mandate was not a tax but a penalty, as argued by Obama.
Romney then had to declare publicly that the Supreme Court ruling means the mandate is a tax, but added more confusion by making clear he disagreed with the high court decision.
Obama kept up the pressure on Romney on the issue, assailing him in an interview airing Friday for reversing his position on the penalty provision.
A short portion of the interview was distributed by Obama's campaign early Friday. The remainder of the interview with WLWT-TV in Cincinnati was not immediately available.
Romney "was one of the biggest promoters of the individual mandate," Obama said in the interview. "In Massachusetts, his whole idea was that we shouldn't have people who can afford to get health insurance to not buy it and then force you or me, or John Q. Public to have to pay for him when he gets sick."
Now, Obama said, Romney's reversal from "penalty" to "tax" raises the question of "are you doing that because of politics?"
"Are you abandoning a principle that you fought for, for six years simply because you're getting pressure for two days from Rush Limbaugh or some critics in Washington?" Obama said.
Romney's campaign responded that Obama "told the American people that Obamacare was not a new tax, then sent his lawyers to convince the Supreme Court that it was a new tax, and now is insisting -- again -- that it is not a tax."
"Americans deserve straight answers from their president," a campaign statement said.
When asked about the issue, Romney said Friday that he always maintained that health care should be managed at the state level, like his program in Massachusetts, rather than at the federal level under Obamacare.
Obama's solicitor general argued before the Supreme Court in March that the individual mandate could be viewed as constitutional under Congress' taxation power. Donald Verrilli said the fee would be collected by the Internal Revenue Service on April 15, the day Americans pay their federal income taxes.
Asked by Associate Justice Samuel Alito "can the mandate be viewed as a tax?" Verrilli responded, "I think it could."
In his speech at the Ohio school, Obama raised the issue again, saying to cheers that including the individual mandate with its penalty provision was the right thing to do.
"I make no apologies for it," the president said.