President Obama speaks at Washington-Lee High in Arlington, Va. (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- More so than in any recent election, the monthly jobs report seems as important as any new poll in setting the presidential campaign narrative.
Look no further than the furious effort on the part of the White House and Mitt Romney's campaign to spin Friday's disappointing data, which showed that while the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1%, the pace of job creation slowed for the third straight month.
For Romney, the timing is particularly auspicious. President Obama is set to hold his first public campaign rallies on Saturday in Ohio and Virginia, something of a kickoff for a reelection effort that in reality has been well underway for more than a year. It also comes at the end of a week in which Obama maximized the advantage of being the incumbent commander-in-chief, particularly one with clear foreign policy and national security successes such as the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Spurred by the lackluster jobs report, Romney got back on the offensive Friday morning, declaring on "Fox and Friends" that the report was "terrible and very disappointing."
"We should be seeing numbers in the 500,000 jobs-created per month. This is way, way, way off from what should happen in a normal recovery," he said.
But as Romney sought to regain the upper hand, there was a slight stumble -- or at the very least the setting of a very high bar. After he said there should be 500,000 jobs being added each month, analysts quickly pointed out that such a figure has occurred only four times in the last half century.
Romney also said later that an unemployment rate above 4% was "not cause for celebration." The rate has only been that low in 11 months since January 1970 -- all at the tail end of the Clinton administration.
Obama, meanwhile, repeated what has become his standard response to the monthly report: good, but not good enough. The president is trying to find the balance between highlighting the positive news without appearing to celebrate a grinding recovery.
As he does in all his speeches, Obama issued reminders of how bad things once were and tried to emphasize long-term trends rather than a one-month snapshot.
"After the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, our businesses have now created more than 4.2 million new jobs over the last 26 months, more than 1 million jobs in the last six months alone," Obama said Friday during a visit to a high school in northern Virginia. "So that's the good news. But there are still a lot of folks out of work, which means that we've got to do more."
A top White House economic advisor wrote that it "is important not to read too much into any one monthly report and it is helpful to consider each report in the context of other data that are becoming available."
The national jobs number gets most of the attention, but the state-by-state data may be more important in a battle for electoral votes that potentially could come down to nine key battlegrounds.
That's one reason the Obama campaign is increasingly customizing its strategy for different states. A message of progress in Michigan and Ohio, where the unemployment rate has decreased by 5.7% and 3.1%, respectively, from all-time highs, has greater resonance than in Nevada, where the rate of 12.0% leads the nation. Virginia's 5.6% unemployment rate is ninth-lowest in the nation.
Friday's Labor Department report also showed that manufacturing employment continued its upward trend, a fact that will be key to the message throughout the Midwest.
Ultimately, to the extent that the economy is a factor in determining their vote, Americans' final decisions will be more on their own impressions of the economy than what a bureaucratic report says, and how they feel in November is what matters most. The goal of the campaign messaging is to shape those views, and they'll be seizing upon every jobs report released between now and election day.
Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.
Original source: Jobs report a key data point in Obama-Romney debate