With both nominating conventions over, Friday's lackluster August jobs report underscores the dynamic underpinning a week's worth of lofty speechifying: This is either man's race.
The Obama campaign is working hard to make this election about which party's vision holds more promise for America. President Obama's speech invoked the word "choice" or "choose" over and over, acknowledging that there is work to be done and asking voters for another term in which to do it.
But the Romney campaign has recycled an old Ronald Reagan line, which it uses to make its guiding mantra a question: "Are you better off?" And if Friday's numbers are any indication, the answer remains ambiguous.
The economy added just 96,000 non-farm jobs, below economists' consensus forecast of 127,000. While the unemployment rate ticked down from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent, the drop was due to more discouraged Americans leaving the work force than in the previous month. The labor participation rate has fallen to 63.5 percent, its lowest level since September 1981.
Those numbers, perhaps more than any convention speech, will play a crucial role in framing the choice Americans will make at the ballot box in November. The Romney campaign was ready with a statement tying Obama to the disappointing data.
"President Obama just hasn't lived up to his promises, and his policies haven't worked," Romney said.
Some day-to-day fluctuation aside, polls still generally show Obama and Romney in a dead heat, with a majority of Americans liking the president personally but giving him poor marks on job performance.
Obama and his advisers are well aware that the economic recovery has a ways to go. While speakers at the Democratic National Convention praised the president's record in averting a deeper economic collapse and noted that job growth has been steady, Obama essentially offered voters a choice between staying the course and returning to what he casts, time and time again, as failed Republican policies.
"I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades," Obama said on Thursday night.
We're now a couple of months away from seeing if American voters are patient enough to let that agenda bear fruit. But if job growth continues to be sluggish, they may decide that Obama has already been given enough time.
To contact the editor, e-mail: