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Tomorrow is jobs day, the day when the federal government releases its monthly unemployment figure. And when the two presidential candidates talk about unemployment, they need to find a delicate balance between optimism, pessimism and reality.
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson explains.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's pretty easy to figure out the political consequences of an economy adding 200,000 or more jobs a month the way it did this winter. That would clearly help President Obama. If the jobs numbers stay below 120,000, well, then Mitt Romney would get a boost. But what if its somewhere in the middle, not great but not awful? Then it's up for interpretation and spin.
Jared Bernstein, who was the chief economist for Vice President Biden, says what matters is momentum.
JARED BERNSTEIN: If people feel like the economy is getting better, even slowly, that certainly helps the incumbent. But if the trends are decelerating, that doesn't help him.
LIASSON: If that trend continues, Romney would have the easier task. As long as he doesn't sound like a sourpuss, talking down the economy, Romney can simply state that times are tough because President Obama s policies have failed.
MITT ROMNEY: The consequence is that we are 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.
LIASSON: President Obama has the harder balancing act. He has to be positive without being a cheerleader for good news that voters don't feel.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Are we satisfied?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.
OBAMA: Of course not. Too many of our friends and family are still out there looking for work.
LIASSON: Here 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.
OBAMA: Yes, there were setbacks. Yes, there were disappointments. But we didn't quit. We don't quit. Together we're fighting our way back.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
LIASSON: As long as the recovery remains anemic, the president has to do something very complicated. While Romney can merely focus on the present, Mr. Obama has to tell a story about the past, how the economy got this way, the present, and the future.
And, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, the president also has to do something every incumbent with a shaky economy needs to do to get re-elected.
CELINDA LAKE: An 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.
LIASSON: 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. As one Democrat put it: We need to get rid of Romney's businessman's halo. And there's some urgency to this because in the last battleground poll Celinda Lake took, Romney was gaining ground. His weaknesses from the GOP primaries seem to have disappeared overnight.
LAKE: 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.
LIASSON: So far there's little or no evidence that the attacks on Romney's record are working. But the Obama campaign says it's still early and they plan to keep telling their version of Romney's story until Election Day. Romney is pushing back, repeating his charge that the president is just a politician who's never worked in the real economy.
But Republican Tony Fratto, who worked for president George W. Bush, thinks Romney needs to tell voters why his private sector experience matters more than the president's.
TONY FRATTO: It is a story that Americans intuitively understand. They know that growth and job creation doesn't really come from the government or government programs.
LIASSON: Fratto thinks Romney also needs to tell voters how his experience at Bain Capital relates to the larger economy.
FRATTO: 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.
LIASSON: Whether he feels the need to tell it may be determined by what the Labor Department reports tomorrow and a month from tomorrow. 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.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.