Job Number Drop Signals Some Recovery

The unemployment rate dropped a tenth of a point this week to 8.8 percent, the lowest since March 2009. NPR's Scott Horsley looks at the figures and what they suggest about the nation's economy.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The U.S. economic recovery is finally showing up where it matters most - in the nation's job market. Employers added more than 200,000 workers to their payrolls last month. The unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in two years. The job gains are welcome news for President Obama, whose reelection hopes may hinge on how the economy fares in the next year and a half.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama was visiting a UPS facility outside Washington yesterday when he paused to announce a special delivery from the Labor Department.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today, we learned that we added 230,000 private sector jobs last month. And that's good news.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama joked that an improving economy would mean more packages for those brown UPS delivery trucks to haul around.

Business in general seemed to welcome the encouraging jobs report. As always, though, the President's celebration was tempered by the knowledge of how many jobs were lost during the economic downturn.

Pres. OBAMA: Everybody here knows we've got a lot of more work to do. There are still millions of Americans out there that are looking for a job that pays the bills.

HORSLEY: That's part of the political challenge for the president - drawing attention to the improvements in the economy, without appearing callous to those who are still out of work.

The unemployment rate inched down in March to 8.8 percent. White House economic advisor Austan Goolsbee notes that's a full percentage point lower than November's jobless rate.

Mr. AUSTAN GOOLSBEE (Chairman, Council of Economic Advisors, White House): That is, I believe, the biggest four-month drop in 27 years, which is good progress. But if the unemployment rate's still 8.8 percent, you've got a long way to go.

HORSLEY: The job gains in March came in many different industries, including manufacturing, mining, health care and professional services. January and February's jobs numbers were also revised upwards. Goolsbee says private employers have now added 1.8 million jobs over the last 13 months.

Mr. GOOLSBEE: You know, you never want to make too much out of any one month's report. But when you get three, four, five months - now 13 months - in a row of private sector job growth, it's telling you something.

HORSLEY: One sector that's not adding jobs is government. Cash-strapped state and local governments continue to lay off thousands of workers. And for the most part, construction firms are not hiring either. Housing construction has often been one of the first industries to recover from a recession, but not this time with home prices still falling in much of the country, and vacant foreclosures continuing to weigh on the market.

That may help to explain why so far, the improvements in the job market have not shown up in Mr. Obama's approval ratings. According to a new Gallup poll, just 39 percent of Americans approve of the way Mr. Obama is handling the economy. Gallup's Frank Newport says that number has barely budged in the last year.

Mr. FRANK NEWPORT (Editor in Chief, Gallup): For the jobs numbers to be translated into political capital, I think people have to perceive the economy's getting better themselves. Not just the raw numbers from the government but their attitudes, their perceptions. And, on that front, we're not seeing any change in economic confidence. It's down. So, until that moves, all the economic data in the world probably isn't going to have much effect on Obama.

HORSLEY: Economists will continue to keep a close eye on Japan and the Middle East for signs that supply shortages or rising oil prices could derail the U.S. recovery. So far, though, the economy seems to be withstanding these foreign headwinds. Yesterday the president warned of another threat closer to home. If Congress fails to agree on a spending plan next week, then the government is forced to shut down.

Pres. OBAMA: Given the encouraging news we received today on jobs, it would be the height of irresponsibility to halt our economic momentum because of the same old Washington politics. That's not what we need.

HORSLEY: The Administration argues there's no reason lawmakers can't strike a budget deal, so long as everyone is willing to give a little.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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