First-time claims for unemployment benefits held last week just about where they've been recently — at a four-year low, according a report out Thursday. But in congressional testimony Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke expressed only cautious optimism about the strength of the economy.
The economy has been and is likely to continue to be a major focus of this year's presidential campaign. And in key battleground states like Ohio, the economy appears to be outperforming the nation as a whole.
Since December, Nissen Chemitec America has added about 150 workers at its London, Ohio, plastics factory.
"We're also working a seven-day, 24-hours-a-day schedule," says Shawn Hendrix, senior vice president at Nissen Chemitec.
That's four shifts. Employees are working more than 40 hours a week on average. Nissen Chemitec makes plastic components mostly for Honda vehicles, and Hendrix says it's almost hard to believe how busy the factory has gotten.
"We expected it to pick up, but to this degree, it's unexpected," says Hendrix. "We're happy for our primary customer and obviously happy for ourselves and our associates."
This type of thing is happening in pockets all over Ohio. A lot of it is driven by Honda, which has a huge presence here and lots of suppliers, but the manufacturing sector in general has been strong. The unemployment rate statewide is 7.9 percent — lower than the national rate, which is 8.3 percent.
A Swing-State Upswing
In fact, of the 12 swing states seen as critical in deciding November's presidential contest, two-thirds have unemployment rates below the national average, and four, including Ohio, have a lower unemployment rate than they did when President Obama took office.
"We're not out of the woods yet, say Americans. But things are looking better," says Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut, describing recent survey results.
"For the first time we have a majority of Americans saying that they think the economy is either already recovering or that it will recover soon," says Kohut. "A year ago a majority of Americans didn't hold that view."
He says very few Americans rate the economy as excellent or good. But Kohut says the improving optimism is showing up in improving approval ratings for President Obama.
Shortly after last month's better-than-expected jobs report came out, GOP consultant Erick Erickson of Redstate.com brought a cautionary message to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"I hate to be pessimistic about an election we should win, but it seems like we are setting ourselves up to lose if the economy improves," Erickson said during a panel discussion.
Erickson said the race should be about more than the economy. He argued that in the primary, Republicans have focused too much on electability and not enough on issues.
"If electability is your case and the electability is based on 'I can fix the economy' and the economy fixes itself, then why do we necessarily need a nominee who the Obama campaign is going to spend millions and millions of dollars on to make unlikable?" Erickson asked.
But at this point it's entirely unclear whether Erickson's concerns will become a reality. Matt McDonald, a political consultant at Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington, watches the monthly jobs reports as closely as just about anyone. He says economic statistics are a window into how people experience the economy. But they vote based on how they feel.
"I think that both the president and the eventual Republican nominee have to be cognizant about where people are in how they're experiencing the economy," says McDonald.
If people are paying a lot at the gas pump, if they aren't earning what they used to, or know someone who has given up searching for work, then he says it may not matter what the unemployment rate is.
"And I think that there's been so many false starts that voters are going to be comparatively skeptical and are going to be in a 'show me' mood in terms of the economy," he says.
A perfect example of this is Hendrix, back at Nissen Chemitec America. Here's a guy who has just hired more than 100 people (though many on a temporary basis), and he's still not convinced the recovery is real.
"Our associates ask me, 'Well, how long are we going to be running seven days a week? How long are we going to be on this four-shift schedule?' and my answer to them is flatly 'I don't know.' "
He's just not sure the economy will be able to keep it up. And what the economy does could be a huge factor in who wins this November.