What the economy means for 2016

February jobs report released
new day jobs report feb 15_00002923

    JUST WATCHED

    February jobs report released

MUST WATCH

February jobs report released 01:05

(CNN)Democrats suddenly have a good problem on their hands — an economy that is roaring back.

Friday marked the latest in a string of positive labor market news: 295,000 jobs were created in February, far surpassing most economists' expectations. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate fell to 5.5%, a level not seen since before the eruption of the financial crisis.
But while the February jobs report was a reminder of just how far the economic recovery has come since President Barack Obama first took office six years ago, it also raises a fresh dilemma for the president's Democratic colleagues looking to keep the White House and win back the Senate in 2016.
If the economic recovery emerges as a key part of the party's 2016 campaign message, Democrats run the risk of having to retrace their steps if the growth fizzles out or, worse, takes a downward turn.
    For the time being, Democrats are being careful not to overplay their hand.
    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hailed Friday's jobs report as a "momentous milestone in the longest uninterrupted stretch of private job creation in our history," before remarking that "more needs to be done."
    Jason Furman, Obama's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, similarly referred to "another strong employment report" on Friday, but went on to add that "additional steps are needed to continue strengthening wages for the middle class."
    Former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber, who served as an economic adviser to the Republican Party's 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said Democrats risk a "mission accomplished" moment if they're too celebratory this early on in the 2016 cycle.
    "That's not an easy message to deliver whether it's in war and peace or in the economic arena," said Weber, who has signed on to advise Jeb Bush's expected White House campaign. "People don't want to be told that all their problems have been solved and everything good so it's a little bit tricky."
    Dig a little deeper into the small print of Friday's jobs report, and there are plenty of reasons for voters to remain skeptical about the economic recovery.
    Wages were once again a weak spot in the February jobs report, rising just 2 percent from the year before. The U.S. labor force contracted last month — a sign that the unemployment rate fell in part because fewer people were looking for work, rather than because a bigger chunk of the labor force found jobs.
    Meanwhile, the end of 2014 clocked in lackluster growth, with gross domestic product expanding at a disappointing 2.2% in the final three months of the year, according to the government's most recent estimate.
    These data points have plenty of economists warning that the recent spike in jobs growth is bound to level off as the 2016 campaign kicks into high gear.
    "We can't add 250,000 or 300,000 jobs per month indefinitely. We just don't have the people to do that," said Gus Faucher, PNC's senior macroeconomist. "What we'll see is something close to 250,000 jobs per month this year and 200,000 per month next year."
    Michael Feroli, JPMorgan's chief U.S. economist, said it would be difficult to sustain the level of jobs growth from recent months particularly if GDP growth doesn't pick up significantly.
    "I'd like to say it's sustainable but I don't think it is," Feroli said. "To sustain 280,000-type numbers month after month, you'd need really strong GDP growth and that just doesn't seem like that's in the cards right now."
    Meanwhile, the economic news poses a different set of challenges for Republicans.
    Just two years ago, the party's presidential nominee made an aggressive campaign against Obama's economic policies. The economic environment was drastically different then — it was only several months out from the 2012 elections that the unemployment rate slipped beneath 8% for the first time since January 2009.
    With the unemployment rate stabilizing, Republicans are now looking to to focus on issues other than the economy, such as foreign policy, as they head toward 2016.
    At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference last month, top national Republicans rarely discussed the health of the economy. Instead, they delivered fiery speeches condemning Obama's weak record on national security and rallied conservative activists by vowing to take on the country's enemies like ISIS.
    "What really matters is not so much what the economy looks like today, but rather where it is about a year from now," said Mark McKinnon, former adviser to George W. Bush. "I think the fact that it looks relatively good right now is why you see so much foreign policy focus in the Republican primaries."