If the election really is going to come down to which candidate can create the most jobs, voters are going to have a hard time determining whether President Obama or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney comes out on top.
That's because for all the pomp about the jobs they've added and the unemployment rate they've reduced, the reality is that Obama's record as president and Romney's history as governor of Massachusetts are of a different species.
Jobs are in sharp focus today as the latest data from the government show bleak signs of recovery. Just 69,000 jobs were added in May, and the unemployment rate ticked back up to 8.2 percent. Romney called it proof that Obama has failed, and he said in a TV interview that Obama's handling of the economy was "dealt a harsh indictment this morning."
If Obama inherited a national economy in freefall, Romney inherited a statewide economy beginning to emerge from the 2001 recession. It was more manageable (and decidedly smaller), and highly educated with premier universities pumping out skilled workers. The 2001 recession, economists say, was easier to emerge from than the financial crisis that brought about the worst economic conditions since the Depression.
The campaigns have started assaulting each other this week on their job-creation and economic records. Romney, for instance, says that under Obama, the country lost a half-million jobs, GDP growth has been weak, and the deficit is widening. That's all empirically true. But the circumstances of the past few years provide important context, according to a handful of economists we surveyed.
No independent economist we interviewed was able to say one candidate has a better case than the other, which allows the campaigns to exploit uncertainties on the stump this week.
Just today, Romney and Obama's adviser David Axelrod volleyed grenades from coast to coast.
"The idea of 23 million American families out of work or stopped looking for work or underemployed is unacceptable," Romney said at a press conference that he for some reason arranged secretly at Solyndra, the bankrupt green company to which the Obama administration gave money.
Axelrod said at a press conference in Boston, Romney's turf: "When Governor Romney rolled out his candidacy just a few miles away in New Hampshire, a few weeks ago after he clinched the nomination, he spoke for 15 or 20 minutes and never found the time to mention that he once had been the governor of Massachusetts, the one elected office he ever held. And there's good reason for that. The Massachusetts record was alarmingly weak."
On the other side of things, Romney says that on his own record as governor of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007, he lowered the unemployment rate by almost 1 percent, added tens of thousands of new jobs and closed a financial shortfall while balancing budgets.
In attacking Obama, Romney and his campaign's implication is that on the day Obama took office, he became responsible for the economy. Every job loss or gain is because of him, in this line of reasoning. Never mind that Obama inherited a bad economy that began when George W. Bush was president. The job losses continued for a long time after the transition from one president to the next. Then they got a little better, and now they're somewhere in between.
"Just because you take office in January doesn't immediately turn things around," said Paul Kasriel, the director of economic research at Northern Trust.
"It was a different time," Kasriel said. "The economy was on the mend then."
Analysts also point out that the drop in Massachusetts's unemployment rate was because of people not looking for work or moving, a weird statistical glitch that skewers how the jobless rate is calculated.
The United States from 2009 to now is not the same environment as Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. Still, that doesn't mean Obama is off the hook for his own claims about Romney and embellishments of his own record.
Obama says often that he saved the country from the brink of disaster with the stimulus (he calls it the Recovery Act), and that it helped create as many as 2 million jobs. The bigger question to many economists is whether those jobs will stick — and also whether they're jobs at the bottom of the ladder or higher paying.
"That's great that you have job creation," said Todd Schoenberger, a managing principle at the BlackBay Group. "However, for sustaining any type of economic growth for the U.S. economy, you really need those high-wage jobs, and that's where we're going to have some trouble."
The conventional equation says that good-paying jobs lead to consumers' spending more on things like housing and major durable goods — more than just food on the table, in other words.
Obama also has his own unemployment number trick — over the past months, it's trickled down to 8.1 percent, but not necessarily because more people are at work. It's the same effect that happened in Romney's Massachusetts — fewer people looking for work.
And the president can't expect everyone to cut him slack on the jobs that were lost during the beginning of his administration, even if they were a result of the financial crisis that exploded in Bush's second term.
"If you are asking for my vote and you want to be in the White House, I'm going to have to hold you to the standard that what happens on your watch is on your watch," Schoenberger said. "All of Wall Street's going to look at that. We're going to be accountable for what takes place; therefore the president of the United States will have to be as well."