With the nation slowly stepping out of a recession and Americans feeling uncertain about their jobs, the issue of work and the economy has moved to the forefront of the presidential race, overshadowed at times only by the war in Iraq.
"There's a tremendous sense of insecurity among American workers today," said Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University Law School.
Employment and prosperity are always pivotal issues in presidential elections, from Herbert Hoover's "chicken in every pot" to Ronald Reagan's "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" But economic security is in a particularly prominent role this election. The candidates and their families are campaigning fiercely in so-called swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the economy has been hit hard and jobs are a top priority.
President Bush says the economy is "turning the corner," a position bolstered by last week's news of a drop in claims for unemployment benefits and a rebound in consumer spending. Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, are pledging to create "a stronger America" with well-paid jobs.
Political analysts say the job picture hasn't been this dominant an issue since 1992, when Bill Clinton beat President George Bush as the country emerged from recession.
Putting the issue even more on the minds of Americans is that after the 1990s brought the greatest sustained economic growth in history, a sharp increase in gas and oil prices has exacerbated a decline in personal spending.
The job market has undergone a major structural shift in recent years. From 2001 to 2003, about 6.1 million workers lost jobs or were displaced from jobs they had held for less than three years, and 5.3 million lost or were displaced from jobs they had held for more than three years, according to a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
About 65 percent of the longer-term workers are re-employed, but more than half of them are in jobs that pay less than their previous ones, the study says. Also, a recent nonscientific Web survey by Monster.com found that two out of three people feel the job market is not improving.
"The truth is, what we're witnessing right now is the first generation of downwardly mobile Americans," said Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's labor education and research center.
Historic job loss
In addition to the uncertainty about jobs, corporate scandals have dominated the news, financial compensation for chief executive officers has gone up significantly, and the average wage has increased just enough to keep up with cost-of-living increases as labor unions have shrunk over the past quarter-century, Craver said.
The Democrats must impress upon the public that the Bush presidency has been the first since Hoover's more than 70 years ago to coincide with a loss of jobs in the nation, said Alan Draper, a professor of government who specializes in labor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
Although the national unemployment rate is improving, it was up last month to 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent when Bush took office in January 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The job losses have been concentrated among low-wage jobs for workers without college degrees, especially in manufacturing. Those jobs are typically filled by blue-collar male workers in a demographic that Bush did well with in the last election, Draper said.
"So the question is whether the economic interest of that group will trump the kind of cultural issues that made them lean more toward Bush than one would have suspected," Draper said. "And the question now is whether Kerry can use the job issue to bring that group along to the extent he needs to."
In addition to the jobs that have been lost, "there are also many more workers who are worried about their wages being stagnant and their health care and their pensions being in danger," said David Kusnet, chief speechwriter for Clinton from 1992 to 1994. "So the issue isn't only what you would call the 'desperately ill,' but also the 'worried well.'"
About 52 percent of approximately 1,500 adults questioned in a Pew Research Center survey released last week said they disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy, compared with 42 percent who approved.
Kerry and Edwards - who campaigns on his blue-collar background and is known for vivid rhetoric when talking about workers - are running as the ticket of the "working man." They are campaigning on opposition to corporate greed and the importance of keeping jobs in the United States.
To win, Kerry must emphasize that he has a plan for economic recovery that would create and protect good jobs and would deal with globalization, said Gary Chaison, industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Kerry is vulnerable on jobs because he has always supported international trade and was not the labor movement's top choice among the candidates who vied for the Democratic nomination, Chaison said.
Experts say the onus is on Kerry to lay out a plan different from the current administration's. The Massachusetts senator has said he plans give tax breaks to middle-class families and takes a dim view of outsourcing jobs.
The current 5.5 percent unemployment rate is lower than the average over the past half-century of 5.8 percent, said Ed Potter, president of the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington research firm that focuses on workplace issues.
"Setting aside whether you think the tax cuts are good or bad, the fact of the matter is this administration, from a fiscal point of view, put into the economy as much money as any administration could," Potter said.
"The average unemployment in the Bush administration is virtually the same unemployment that existed for eight years of the Clinton administration," he said. "It's just that the last four years of the Clinton administration, we had this dot-com boom, people were feeling good, the unemployment went down. ... People, I think, began to think that could be the norm."
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney - with his background as a corporate leader and years of experience in public life - say the economy is on a path to recovery.
The president's economic recovery plan includes promoting free trade, making permanent the tax cuts enacted in his tenure, streamlining regulations and allowing more class action lawsuits to be moved into federal court "so that trial lawyers have a tougher time shopping for a favorable court," according to the president's campaign Web site.
One measure of economic growth that has helped predict past election outcomes is Americans' disposable income, said Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow in political economy for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. Typically, if disposable income is stagnant or shrinking, the incumbent candidate will be voted out. Solid growth means he will stay in the White House, Mitchell said.
Americans' per-capita disposable income grew 2.9 percent from the second quarter of 2003 to the second quarter of 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"The benchmark seems to be, if it's growing faster than 2 percent, the incumbent party's in good shape," Mitchell said.
Attention to war
In states such as Florida, where the economy is doing better and where the 2000 election turned in Bush's favor over Al Gore, the Republicans are more likely to focus their campaign on Iraq and the war on terrorism, said Daniel Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
Still, experts say there is more concern over jobs and the economy in this election than in the past two.
"Assuming the war doesn't take a terrible turn, assuming Iraq continues the way it is, I think the economy will probably take precedent in the mind of most people," Craver of George Washington University said.