A sign outside a McDonald's restaurant in Chesterland, Ohio, advertises job openings earlier this month.
A sign outside a McDonald's restaurant in Chesterland, Ohio, advertises job openings earlier this month. Amy Sancetta/AP
Friday is jobs day, when the federal government releases its monthly unemployment report. It's also just about five months before the presidential election.
When the two presidential contenders talk about unemployment, they're trying to balance their rhetoric between optimism, pessimism and reality.
It's pretty easy to figure out the political consequences of an economy adding 200,000 or more jobs a month — the way the U.S. economy did this winter. Numbers like that would clearly help President Obama.
If the jobs numbers stay where they have been for the past two months, well below that, the presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney would get a boost.
But what if it's somewhere in the middle — not great but not awful? Then it's up for interpretation and spin.
Preparing For Sun, Rain Or Fog
"If people feel like the economy is getting better even slowly, that certainly helps the incumbent, but if the trends are decelerating, I'm sure that doesn't help him," says Jared Bernstein, former chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden.
If the jobs numbers continue to disappoint, Romney has the easier task. As long as he doesn't sound like a sourpuss, talking down the economy, Romney can argue that times are tough because Obama's policies have failed.
"The consequence is that we are now enduring the most tepid recovery in modern history. The consequence is that half the kids who are graduating from college can't find a job that uses their skills. Half," Romney said earlier this month in Des Moines, Iowa.
The president has a harder balancing act. He has to be positive without being a cheerleader for good news voters don't necessarily feel.
"Are we satisfied?" Obama asked a crowd in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this month, referring to the number of jobs added in the past few years. They responded, "No!" Obama added, "Of course not. Too many of our friends and family are still out there looking for work."
During that rally, it helped that the president was speaking in Ohio, which, like many battleground states this year, has a lower unemployment rate than the national average. Ohio's unemployment rate during the month of April was 7.4 percent, compared with the national average of 8.1 percent.
"Yes, there were setbacks. Yes, there were disappointments. But we didn't quit. We don't quit. Together, we're fighting our way back," Obama said.
As long as the recovery doesn't rev up, the president has to do something very complicated. While Romney can merely focus on the present, Obama has to tell a story about the past — how the economy got this way — the present and the future.
The president also has to do something every incumbent with a shaky economy needs to do to get re-elected.
"The incumbent is in trouble unless he disqualifies the challenger, and that is what we need to do. We need to pose a choice, and we need to disqualify Romney," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
This is why the Obama campaign is spending so much time and money trying to define Romney as a failed governor and a leveraged buyout artist who puts profits before people. There's some urgency to this, because in the last Battleground Poll conducted by Lake's research group, Romney was gaining ground.
"It was sobering, because Romney had been able to rehabilitate himself frankly faster than I had thought he would be able to do, and it was sobering because the two candidates were equal on the economy even though Barack Obama had a 23-point lead on being for the middle class and a 10-point lead on shares your values," says Lake.
So far, there's little or no no evidence that the attacks on Romney's record are working — but the Obama campaign says it's still early, and aides say they plan to keep telling their version of Romney's story until Election Day.
Romney, meanwhile, is pushing back, repeating his charge that the president is just a politician who has never worked in the real economy.
The Experience Factor
But Republican Tony Fratto, who worked for President George W. Bush, says Romney needs to tell voters why his private-sector experience matters more than the president's experience.
"It is a story that Americans intuitively understand. They know that you know all of the good things, growth and job creation ... doesn't really come from the government or government programs," says Fratto.
He says Romney also needs to tell voters how his experience at Bain Capital relates to the larger economy.
"They don't always understand what the motivation and role of the private sector is, and I think ... that is a really important lesson to teach Americans, and it's a perfect message for Mitt Romney, given his background, to tell," says Fratto.
A lot depends on what the Labor Department reports Friday and in the months to come. If the jobs numbers dip, Romney may not have to do much more than attack the president.
But if the jobs report stays cloudy, no sun but no rain either, Romney may need to paint a fuller picture of his own policies.