What's a voter to think?
The Labor Department provided the final economic puzzle piece before Election Day Friday, reporting October unemployment at 7.9 percent -- up 0.1 percentage point from September -- representing 12.3 million workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 171,000 non-farm private-sector jobs were added to the economy -- far fewer than the 250,000 economists say are needed to bring the unemployment rate down significantly but significantly up from the 148,000 September figure. Unemployment for blacks rose to 14.3 percent while the levels for other groups were virtually unchanged. Long-term unemployment -- those without work for more than a half-year -- stood at 5 million, about 40.6 percent of the total number of unemployed. The civil labor force rose 578,000 to 155.6 million workers.
The largest proportion of job gains was made among business and professional services, 51,000, with 13,000 of those in the services to buildings and dwellings sector and 7,000 in computer systems design.
The effects of Hurricane Sandy were not figured into the report since the data were collected before the superstorm hit the East Coast, the BLS said.
White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Alan Krueger said the numbers are evidence the economy is healing, at the same time acknowledging "more work remains to be done."
"This morning, we learned that companies hired more workers in October than at any time in the last eight months," President Barack Obama told a campaign rally in Ohio after the numbers were released.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was quick to jump on the figures as well.
"Today's increase in the unemployment rate is a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill," Romney said in a statement.
"For four years, President Obama has told us that things are getting better and that we're making progress. For too many American families, those words ring hollow."
Regardless of the raw numbers, a report by Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas suggests the immediate future still is bleak despite the looming holiday shopping season that sees retailers bulking up on staff in anticipation of the annual shopping frenzy.
The report, which came out ahead of the Labor Department report, said layoff notices jumped to 47,724 in October, up from 33,816 in September and the highest level since May, when 61,887 job cuts were announced. The October figure also topped year-ago levels when employers announced 42,759 workers would lose their jobs. Still, the annual picture is better than last year at this time. In the first 10 months of the year, 433,725 layoffs were announced compared to 521,823 in the first 10 months of 2011.
"The final three months of the year tend to see heavier downsizing activity as companies make year-end adjustments to meet earnings goals and to prepare for the new year. Certainly, the deluge of weak third-quarter earnings reports that resulted from declining sales here and abroad does not bode well for workers as 2013 approaches," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
The most layoffs were announced in the automotive sector, most of them at Ford, which announced it would close a plant in Belgium. The next-highest level of job cuts was announced among consumer products companies, followed by electronics and industrial goods.
"While the Ford job cuts are not impacting American workers, they indicate just how vulnerable companies in the U.S. are to the situation in Europe," Challenger said.
"If President Obama is re-elected and delivers on campaign promises, the jobs picture will worsen," predicted University of Maryland economist Peter Morici.
"Since peaking at 10 percent in October 2009, the jobless rate has fallen mostly because 6 million adults have chosen not to look for work. But for this phenomenon, the unemployment rate would still be 9.7 percent."
Morici predicts a new recession in 2013 if Obama is re-elected, citing the impact of proposed tax hikes on the highest income levels and persistent federal deficit spending. He notes the impact on jobs of the growing trade deficits with China and oil-producing countries, saying they're responsible for the disappearance of 10 million U.S. jobs.
But does the president -- or his policies -- have much of an impact?
Alan Beattie, international economy editor for the Financial Times, in an editorial last week said economic experts are "shaking their heads" about statements made by both Obama and Romney about what their policies will mean to U.S. workers. Beattie notes a president does not have a magic wand he can wave to fix the economy.
"Most likely, we'll be back here again in four years' time, with the challenger accusing the incumbent of selling out to China and letting jobs be shipped overseas and the incumbent, by accepting the premise of the attack, ensuring another debate about the global economy that takes place at an oblique angle to reality," Beattie wrote.