By Richard Thomas, San Diego, California

The latest jobless figures released by the US Labor Department on October 4 showing unemployment falling to below 8% are good news for President Obama’s re-election campaign, but their timing has caused some controversy.

The drop from 8.1% to 7.8% is both huge and unexpected – too good to be true suggest Obama’s opponents.

Indeed, given the President’s lack lustre performance in the first debate with challenger Mitt Romney, the better than anticipated improvement in the labour market has given Obama and his team an opportunity for some positive spin at just the right moment.

However, suggestions the September figures had been manipulated by the Democrats for political purposes have no foundation. There are no political appointees at the moment among The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is part of the Labor Department, as it is staffed by career civil servants.

The figures are drawn from two surveys – one of businesses and another of households – and the results for September are in line with a recent general surge in consumer confidence.

The latest numbers bring unemployment in the US back to the position it was when President Obama took office in 2008. The drop in nation’s jobless total comes about because more people are working, not because the long term unemployed have become discouraged and chosen to drop out of the labour market.

The creation of new jobs in September is real – 104,000 in the private sector and 10,000 in the Government arena. Businesses have been adding jobs since March 2010 and, for governments across the US, this is their third month of job gains in a row.

Gov. Romney commented that ‘this is not what a real recovery looks like’ – and the US manufacturing unquestionably remains in the doldrums with16,000 jobs lost in this sector in September. However, Democrats point out that this is the 24th month in a row that the overall jobs total has risen.

Generally, the view among US economists is that the September unemployment numbers are of more significance politically than economically but there are some strong overall pointers to a slow and consistent improvement in the economy. Commentators point especially to the Labor Department’s survey of households which showed an enormous monthly increase of 875,000 people working.

While the household survey is considered more volatile and subject to error than its business equivalent, it includes the self-employed and agricultural and household workers. Economists comment that the survey is likely to be ‘over stated’ but that it deserves credibility as it closely matches the robust rise in consumer confidence in September.

The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch said: “The household survey can be a better predictor of turning points. It usually rises or falls earlier than the business survey when the economy goes through an up-and-down cycle.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times quoted the CEO of management consultants Grant Thornton as saying that while there is still much pessimism in US business, there are some real growth areas. He singled out the technology, high-end manufacturing and energy sectors.

While predicting employment numbers is notoriously difficult, it seems that the overall picture in the US may be better than previously thought. In an annual recalibration in August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that there were actually some 400,000 more jobs added in the 12 months that ended in March than they have previously estimated.

So September’s unemployment figures may have brought instant political benefit to the incumbent US President, and they also match the long term, gradual improvement in the nation’s overall economic prospects.