How weak is the U.S. job market?

Depends on your numbers

WASHINGTON Ė Is the U.S. job market dismal as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney says? Or is it steadily improving as President Barack Obama contends?

Not to dodge the question, but both men are correct. Itís all about how you slice the data.

Romney and his Republican allies like to point to the unemployment rate. Itís stuck at 8.3 percent, compared with 7.8 percent when Obama took office. Most economists say ďnormalĒ unemployment is 6 percent or less.

Obama naturally prefers to stress the more than 4 million jobs the economy has added in the last two years.

Neither figure fully illustrates the state of the job market Ė the pivotal issue for many voters in the final stretch of the election season. You have to consider other numbers, too.

What about the number of people who have given up looking for work and so arenít counted as unemployed? Or the pace of layoffs? What about the level of job openings advertised?

The job market began strengthening in mid-2010. That was about a year after the Great Recession officially ended. The gains since then have been steady but achingly slow. Thatís why nearly every gauge of the job market plays into a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty election debate.

Hereís an overview of key numbers and the varying stories they tell:

Unemployment

Romney and other Republicans have stressed that the unemployment rate has topped 8 percent for 42 consecutive months. Thatís the longest such stretch since government record-keeping began in 1948.

For Obama, this probably is the most threatening statistic. No president since World War II has won re-election with such a high rate. President Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976, when the rate was 7.8 percent. President Carter was unseated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, when it was 7.5 percent.

Reagan managed to win a landslide re-election in 1984, when unemployment was a still-lofty 7.2 percent. But the rate had tumbled from a peak of 10.8 percent in December 1982.

A similar trend could benefit Obama. True, unemployment is historically high. But itís down from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009. That said, Obama has a problem: The unemployment rate has stopped declining recently. Itís now where it was in January.

Jobs

Obama and other Democrats point out that the private sector has added jobs for 29 consecutive months. During that time, 4.5 million jobs have been added. By contrast, over about the same period after the first year of President George W. Bushís first term, only 1.3 million private-sector jobs were added.

But the positive trend for Obama depends on a carefully selected time frame. It counts job gains dating from February 2010. It ignores Obamaís first year in office, when employers shed an average of 357,000 jobs a month. And by counting only private-sector jobs, Obamaís claim excludes hundreds of thousands of layoffs by local and state governments.

Since Obama took office, the overall economy Ė including the public sector Ė has lost 316,000 jobs. Private employers have added only 332,000 jobs. Put all that together, and youíre a long way from 4.5 million.

The administrationís supporters argue that itís fair to exclude the early part of his term. Thatís because his economic policies, particularly the $824 billion stimulus package, didnít kick in until months after his inauguration.

Even counting the gains of the last two years, the economy still has 4.7 million fewer jobs than it did in December 2007, when the recession began.