STRUGGLING WITH AN AWKWARD PITCH…. The latest numbers on job creation are obviously a big step in the right direction. The totals from February and March represent the best two-month stretch in five years. The unemployment rate has dropped from 9.8% to 8.8% in just four months — the sharpest, quickest improvement in 27 years. We have a ways to go before we’re back to where we need to be, but the progress is hard to miss.

These developments are not, however, unfolding outside the political realm. It just so happens the positive trend offers a backdrop for the budget debate, and the new numbers come out a week before a possible government shutdown.

The challenge for Republicans is trying to find credibility.

The news that unemployment dropped again amid signs that the economy is gaining steam arrives at a perilous moment for the GOP, which has fashioned much of its political message around the argument that President Obama’s policies suppress job growth. […]

Key Republicans reacted Friday by saying the numbers were good, but not good enough. But given the state of play on Capitol Hill, with a government shutdown looming and a Republican bloodthirst for more spending cuts, there was little more to say beyond that.

I more or less assumed GOP officials would claim credit for the recent trend, reality notwithstanding, because they’ve done this before. To their credit, Republicans didn’t do this — instead arguing that improved job market doesn’t matter as much as their far-right goals.

Here, for example, was how House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) responded to the unemployment report: “Any improvement in the jobs picture is welcome news for the country, but Washington needs to do more to end the uncertainty plaguing job creators. That means getting control of government spending, ending the threat of tax hikes, removing regulatory obstacles to job growth, and approving stalled trade agreements that would open new markets for American exports.”

I’m sure someone, somewhere, will find this persuasive, but that’s a shame. Today’s Republican message, in effect, is, “We need to stop doing the things that have made the economy better.”

Since taking power, Republicans have coalesced around a two-pronged message: Only by rolling back Obama’s policies and radically slashing the federal budget can sustainable growth occur.

But Friday’s numbers undercut that argument to a degree, handing the White House a weapon with which it can argue that the president’s economic policies are working and that Republican obstructionism could halt the recovery’s forward momentum.

I don’t seriously expect GOP leaders to adjust their negotiating strategy, just because they’re wrong, but it will be interesting to see if they adjust their larger rhetorical strategy.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.