It also raises questions as to whether structural changes, such as technology-driven productivity increases and the outsourcing of employment, may have altered the traditional relationship between economic growth and job creation.
When the job numbers were issued Friday, "it was like, holy mackerel, what's going on here?" said Greg Palmer, chief executive at Remedy Temp Inc. in Aliso Viejo, which has 235 offices in 40 states.
Although staffing companies such as Palmer's have generally done well in recent months, he said, "it makes you stop and be a little more cautious and a little bit more watchful."
The issue of job growth is expected to now move to the forefront of the presidential campaign.
That could spell trouble for Bush, who, with just two more jobs reports before election day, is likely to be the first post-Depression president to complete a term with fewer jobs than when he took office.
On Friday, the Bush administration focused on progress made during the last year, pointing out that payrolls have risen for the last 11 months.
At least some, though, were unimpressed by the gains cited by the White House.
At the Glendale Galleria on Saturday, Lisa Vasilatos had several bags brimming with new clothes -- the first serious bit of shopping she had been able to afford in a year, she said.
"It's been terrible," the 28-year-old said. "With a college degree, I can't get a retail job."
Vasilatos said she had been getting by with temp work and by selling decks of novelty playing cards.
Meanwhile, Amy Ellis of Boulder, Colo., has been looking for work as a photographer for months, sending resumes all over the world. The 26-year-old is living at home and sometimes out of her car these days.
"I am willing to relocate anywhere," she said.
"I have a brother in Oakland who lost his job in telecommunications. I have friends in construction in Denver who lost their jobs. As far as spending, there is no money for frivolous things. I don't go to movies or go out to eat."
Ellis isn't pessimistic about the future, though. Instead, she sees this as part of a cycle that will eventually end.
"I think a change in government could stimulate things, but that's only one factor," she said.
For Bush and Kerry, the economy looms particularly large in industrial states such as Pennsylvania, which have suffered some of the deepest job losses in recent years and are shaping up to be key battlegrounds in the November election.
Douglas Drass has witnessed a couple of those job cuts personally.
The 25-year-old has worked at a Camera Shop Inc. store at the Springfield Mall near Philadelphia since 1999, moving up from a part-timer to his current position as assistant manager. In his brief career, he has seen the number of full-time workers at his store cut from four to two. The culprit: more technologically advanced equipment, which has allowed the store to multiply its film processing and photo printing work, while requiring fewer people for the job.
Drass works about 40 hours a week and clears roughly $22,000 a year in salary and bonuses.
Still, "I'm not able to live on my own with my salary," he said.
Although he was able to buy a new Chevrolet Cavalier this year by taking advantage of a no-interest promotion, Drass said his situation was far different from what his parents, both nurses, faced a generation ago.
"At 25," he said, "they had good jobs, a house and two kids."
Not too far away at Dan's Corner Tavern in Landsdowne, about two miles outside downtown Philadelphia, Hollen Stewart shared his mixed feelings on the economy.
A construction manager for a property management firm that has benefited from the gentrification of Philadelphia's central city, the 47-year-old said he had held up well while many of his friends in the building trades had been out of work. Stewart's wife, a Wells Fargo loan officer, also makes a good salary.
"I am blessed," Stewart said.
But, Stewart said, he could lose his job any day, and he was not optimistic about the economy in the near future.
"I've put off a lot of things because of job insecurity," he said. "I am blessed -- but I am not naive."
Times staff writers Lianne Hart in Houston, Peter Y. Hong in Philadelphia, David Kelly in Denver, John-Thor Dahlburg in Miami and Dawn Wotapka in Los Angeles, as well as Times researcher Lynn Marshall in Seattle, contributed to this report.