WASHINGTON -- The government's monthly jobs report has become Washington's most anticipated and studied economic indicator, pounced upon by politicians, economists and journalists for snap judgments as the presidential election nears. But in the real world, most everybody just looks around and figures things out for themselves.
Is that steel plant closing? Are Ford or General Motors rehiring? How much are those groceries? What's a full tank of gas going to run me? How much is our house worth? How's that 401(k) doing? When will I find another job? Will our college-educated daughter ever find work and move out?
These are the kinds of questions economists and pollsters say are on people's minds more than government statistics.
"People are not looking at these government reports to decide how the economy is doing, or how well they or their neighbors are doing. They know from their own daily experience," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.
"The flow of economic news matters," but only to supplement what their own eyes tell them, Mellman added.
Given that the unemployment rate hasn't dipped below 8 percent since the first month of President Barack Obama's term, Republicans are seizing on the new jobs numbers that come out the first Friday of each month. The GOP is using the fresh figures to batter the president and revive the question famously asked by Ronald Reagan in 1980: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
"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 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 unemployment so high.
Unemployment at Roosevelt's time was about 15 percent, but it was falling from around 25 percent. Momentum and direction do count for something.