The economy remains one of the hottest topics for President Bush and John Kerry to spar over, and both sides have promised to provide more jobs and improve the nation's employment climate.
But the latest jobs report released by the U.S. Department of Labor proves just how something as seemingly straightforward as statistics can be interpreted in different ways. Labor reported that the unemployment rate in September remained unchanged at 5.4 percent, while 96,000 jobs were added to the non-farm payroll in the latest month.
The number of new positions created was considerably lower than estimates given by Wall Street analysts, who on average expected about 145,000 jobs being added onto the payrolls.
Senior administration officials, however, remained upbeat about the employment situation, and Treasury Secretary John Snow pointed out that since last August, a total of 1.9 million jobs were created.
"Today's employment report shows the steady creation of jobs fueled by the pro-growth policies and strong economic leadership of President Bush," Snow said in a statement released shortly after the official data was released.
Meanwhile, the head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Kathleen Utgoff said that the four hurricanes that struck Florida over the past few weeks had no net negative effect on the job market.
"There were negative employment effects on those firms that were unable to operate or were operating at a reduced capacity during the survey period," Utgoff said in her testimony before the Congressional joint economic committee to explain the latest numbers. But she added that it was not easy to measure just how big a dent the hurricanes had on the national jobs market as "other firms expanded their employment in response to the storms. There were clean-up and rebuilding efforts following Hurricanes Charley and Frances. In addition, some firms adjacent to the hard-hit areas likely added workers to help accommodate evacuees from Hurricane Ivan," she added.
The Democratic presidential hopeful has been emphatically pointing out that more jobs have been lost than created over the past four years under Bush.
"With 1.6 million private sector jobs lost during his term, President Bush will be the first president in 72 years to face the electorate with an economy that has lost jobs under his watch. Indeed, job creation is now 7 million jobs behind where the administration projected in February 2002 our economy would now be if we followed the president's economic plan," Kerry said.
He added, "Even over this last year, our economy has failed to create even enough jobs to cover new workers coming into the job market, not to speak of the millions who are unemployed, working in part-tie or temporary jobs or who have given up and dropped out."
Big business largely remains in favor of Bush, and the president of the National Association of Manufacturers said overall economic prospects looked good. John Engler was appointed to the top post at NAM earlier this month, which represents some of the biggest manufacturers in the United States, and he said that "I've only been on the job a week, but I met lots of manufacturers at our board meeting and was struck by their optimism."
He added that a straw poll of NAM members found that nearly 96 percent would be voting for Bush as a result.
For trade unions representing wage earners, however, the latest numbers were signs of Bush's failure to steer the economy forward.
The continued weakness in the labor market "is more evidence that George Bush's insistence on an economic policy build entirely on millionaire tax cuts and reckless trade policies is failing the nation and failing America's working families," said John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO.
Hard-nosed economists looking simply at the numbers were far from upbeat about the latest results, even though they were not as scathing as Kerry.
"The disappointing trend in job growth continues and...the labor market is neither too hot, nor too cold," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors. He pointed out that even the Labor Department did not blame the latest weakness in the jobs data on the hurricanes striking Florida, as the weakness in the labor market was spread across the board, from manufacturers to retailers to the telecommunications sector.
For monetary policymakers at the Federal Reserve, meanwhile, the latest numbers are unlikely to stop raising interest rates as they are weak, but not excessively so, Naroff said.
"This report will be disappointing to the (financial) market and some will call on the Fed to scrap their plan for rate hikes," said Brian Wesbury, chief economist at Griffin, Kubik, Stephens & Thompson.
Nevertheless, "with the economy remaining strong and inflationary pressure building, we believe the Fed should continue its path of bringing the Fed funds rate to a neutral level (above its current level of 1.75 percent)", Wesbury added.