Story highlights

Unemployment dropped to 8.3% in January, defying expectations

The White House says economic gains validate its policies

Republicans say any economic gains have come in spite of Obama's policies

There is a strong correlation between economic performance and incumbents' reelection chances

(CNN) —  

That loud noise you heard Friday morning? Cheers from the White House and President Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago.

Employers created 243,000 jobs in January, according to Friday’s Labor Department report. The unemployment rate dropped from 8.5% to 8.3% – the lowest level since February 2009. Unemployment has now dropped for five months in a row.

The news was far better than most economists expected. Politically, it’s gold for an incumbent running in a year when the economy is by far the top concern.

“There are still far too many Americans who need a job … (but) the economy is growing stronger. The recovery is speeding up,” Obama told a crowd in Virginia after the news broke. “I want to send a clear message to Congress. Do not slow the recovery we are on. Don’t muck it up. Keep it moving in the right direction.”

Alan Kreuger, head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said the “employment report provides further evidence that the economy is continuing to heal from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”

He added that it “is critical that we continue the economic policies that are helping us to dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the recession that began at the end of 2007.”

Translation: We’re cleaning up George W. Bush’s mess. Give us a second term to finish the job.

This being an election year, Republicans put the worst possible spin on the report.

“We welcome the fact that jobs were created and unemployment declined. Unfortunately, these numbers cannot hide the fact that President Obama’s policies have prevented a true economic recovery,” GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said in a written statement.

“Long-term unemployment remains at record levels,” he said, noting that economic growth in 2011 was the slowest for any non-recession year since the end of World War II. “We can do better.”

Fellow candidate Rick Santorum declared that “it only took four years to overcome the horrible policies of this administration.”

The economy, GOP House Speaker John Boehner said, “still isn’t creating jobs the way it should be and that’s why we need a new approach.”

Translation: Republicans need to clean up Barack Obama’s mess. Give us the White House and we’ll do the job.

Whatever Democrats or Republicans say – depending on who’s in office and when – there’s a strong correlation between economic performance and an incumbent’s reelection chances. And over the past few weeks, the number of Americans who approve of Obama’s handling of the economy has been steadily increasing.

In December’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 39% of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of the economy while 57% disapproved. In January, 45% approved while 50% disapproved. Obama remains underwater, but he’s headed in the right direction.

What happens economically over the next few critical months is anyone’s guess. The job situation could continue to brighten, though Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has described the recovery as “frustratingly slow.” The economy still needs to add 5.6 million jobs to return to 2008 employment levels, and no incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt has won reelection with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2%.

And if the bottom falls out in Europe or China – or any other number of catastrophic scenarios come to pass – administration talk of a recovery will ring hollow, to say the least.

Stay tuned.

CNN’s Annalyn Censky, Charles Riley, and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report