WASHINGTON — The stronger the economy gets, the more the presidential race comes down to what voters believe: Are things actually getting better? Or is it all still a mess?
If the economy's direction is the key, President Barack Obama's hand just keeps getting better.
A new snapshot Friday showed the unemployment rate has tumbled to 8.3 percent. That means it is almost back to where it was right after Obama took office, a time when a monstrous recession was still gobbling up American jobs. Hiring is now on a consistent upswing. Employers added nearly twice as many jobs last year as they did in 2010.
With every fresh batch of economic data, the Republicans challenging Obama and the president himself try to spin the numbers to their advantage, depicting either a nation mired in trouble or one showing undeniable signs of progress. Both often seem to be true.
So whichever side sways people on where to put their focus — on America's lingering economic hole or on the fact that the country is climbing out of it — will have an enormous edge toward winning the White House.
Shortly after the jobs report was released, Obama sounded more confident than ever, declaring: "The recovery is speeding up."
The Republicans say that's none of his doing, that improvements have come in spite of his policies, not because of them. There's still a long way to go before full recovery; federal deficits and Europe's troubles hang ominously over the U.S.; unemployment could worsen again.
But there's little doubt that the brightening picture, which is also reflected in other economic indicators, has seriously complicated the messaging for the GOP.
It wasn't long ago that the unemployment rate was closer to 10 percent and stagnant, making it easier for them to claim nothing was getting better under Obama. Now they have to calibrate.
"I believe the economy will come back. It always does," said Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, during a campaign stop in Nevada. He blamed Obama's policies for slowing the recovery, hurting families, and making it harder for businesses to bounce back. "And for that," Romney said, "the president deserves the blame that he'll receive in this campaign."
The bigger opening for Republicans has to do with the burden still resting on Obama's shoulders: Millions of people don't feel any better yet, no matter what the statistics show.
About 12.8 million people remain out of work, and an additional 11 million have either given up looking or can find only part-time jobs. Typical wages have failed to keep up with inflation. Nearly 43 percent of those out of work have been unemployed for at least six months.
And many people around the nation are struggling to make monthly payments on homes that are now worth less than their purchase price.
So Republicans are trying to shift the question away from whether the economy is getting better to whether their party would do much better yet. That argument can be heard from the campaign trail to Capitol Hill, where House Speaker John Boehner accurately pointed out that unemployment has topped 8 percent for 36 months in a row under Obama
Obama's campaign, while noting recent improvements, is eager to frame the election around the question of which candidate has a better and more hopeful economic vision for the next four years and beyond.
The contrast there, in policies, is remarkably clear. Obama promises to use government as a lever to ensure fairness. Opponents Romney and Newt Gingrich promise to repeal Obama legislation they say has helped weaken the economy, such as his health care law and tighter rules on Wall Street behavior.
Gingrich, asked on CNN whether Obama deserves any credit for improving employment, said: "If it makes you happy, give him some credit." Even with the new jobs numbers, he said, the most Obama will be able to say is that he is "less destructive" than he was a year ago.
Obama's vulnerability, as the president who owns the economy, is that voters who remain in dire economic straits will be so turned off by their current condition that they won't listen to talk about the future.
That would play into the underlying Republican argument: Obama has had his chance, and if your life isn't better, it's time to kick him out.
In turn, Obama always tempers his remarks about the economy, even with the trends in his favor.
As he put it on Friday: "There's still far too many Americans who need a job, or need a job that pays better than the one they have now."
Nine months before Election Day, the nation is split. Obama's approval rating has improved over the past few months, rebounding from lows reached last summer, though it has not turned positive. The latest Gallup tracking poll finds the public torn on his performance, with 45 percent saying they approve and 48 percent disapproving.
For every number about how things are getting better, another is available for sobering perspective — and political opportunism.
Obama made a point Friday to say that the economy had added 3.7 million private sector jobs over the past 23 months. Yet overall, the nation has about 5.6 million fewer jobs than it did when the giant recession began in late 2007.
A better direction for the economy is not all that Obama promised.
When he was a new president, Obama told NBC's Matt Lauer that people were going to start seeing progress in a year from his policies.
Then he added: "If I don't have this done in three years, then there's gonna be a one-term proposition."
The three-year mark is here, and voters will soon decide on the one-term part.
The answer may well come down to which economy they're voting on — the one they see now or their faith in the one ahead.
EDITOR'S NOTE — White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the Obama and Bush presidencies for The Associated Press.
Follow him at http://twitter.com/BenFellerDC