"We're going in the wrong direction," GOP nominee Mitt Romney contends. "This president ... doesn't understand what it takes to make our economy work. I do."
The latest numbers show a jobless rate of 8.1 percent for August, with monthly job creation an anemic 96,000, not enough to even match the growth in working-age population. It's doubtful the picture will improve much by Election Day. No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s has won re-election with an unemployment so high.
Unemployment for Roosevelt was then about 15 percent, but falling from around 25 percent. Momentum and direction do count for something.
The economy has lost a staggering 8.8 million jobs in the downturn and has clawed back only 4.1 million. Just two jobs reports remain before the Nov. 6 election — on Oct. 5 and Nov. 2 — and they could be crucial to the outcome.
"To the average person, the economy is a very personal thing," says White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. He said people look at different factors.
But which ones?
"Jobs is still No. 1," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "It's at the top of everyone's list. People might not know the government jobs number that comes out each month, but they see it every day in their lives." A close second right now, Zandi says, are gasoline prices, with the national average grazing $4 a gallon. But otherwise, inflation is generally muted.