A smaller than expected addition of 120,000 jobs last month broke a pattern that was giving voters a growing sense of security and boosting President Obama as Republican Mitt Romney attacked his economic record.
The Labor Department reported Friday that employers added 120,000 jobs in March, after an increase of 227,000 the previous month. It was the fewest jobs added in five months. Unemployment fell to 8.2 percent, the lowest since January 2009, from 8.3 percent. But Friday's data showed unemployed workers left the labor force as Americans worked fewer hours and earned less on average per week.
"It's certainly disappointing," said Chris Rupkey, managing director and chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York. "The president looked on much firmer ground talking about recovery in the labor market and today it's a little shakier."
Even at the recent pace of creating more than 200,000 jobs a month, the nation was not expected to return to full employment for seven years, economists have said.
The disappointing March numbers prompted concern that the country could be in for a period where new hiring more closely matches the nation's tepid economic growth.
"After six months of robust job gains, a mediocre report in March may signal the start of slower improvements in the next six months," said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
That would be bad news for Obama, who has seen his approval ratings buoyed in recent months as the unemployment rate has declined.
Speaking at a women's economic conference at the White House on Friday, Obama acknowledged that the economy is still struggling.
"It's clear to every American that there will still be ups and downs along the way, and that we've got a lot more work to do," he said.
With the still-shaky job market a pivotal issue in the presidential campaign, Romney used news of the weak employment report to criticize Obama's handling of the economy.
"This is a weak and very troubling jobs report that shows the employment market remains stagnant," Romney said in a statement. "Millions of Americans are paying a high price for President Obama's economic policies, and more and more people are growing so discouraged that they are dropping out of the labor force altogether."
Even before the jobs report, the president earlier this week delivered the message that the economy was still not strong and won't be before the November election.
"Whoever he may be, the next president will inherit an economy that is recovering, but not yet recovered from the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression," Obama said in a Tuesday address to newspaper editors.
"Too many Americans will still be looking for a job that pays enough to cover their bills or their mortgage," he said. "Too many citizens will still lack the sort of financial security that started slipping away years before this recession hit."
Obama's presidential rivals have criticized Obama's stewardship of the economy, which has played a leading role in the Republican debates. The Republicans haven't swerved from the main theme that the unemployment rate remains too high.
The economy has been central to Romney's presidential campaign, as he continues to criticize the Obama administration for failing to pull the country out of the recession more quickly.
"He points out that he did not cause the recession, and that's true," the Republican front-runner said at an event in Milwaukee on Monday. "But he's the one we looked to to end the recession and to lead a recovery, and he didn't."
Since World War II, no president has won re-election with a jobless rate above 6 percent, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who faced 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day in 1984.
Romney said Obama's policies have "prolonged the recession, made it deeper and made it harder for us to come out of it. His economic strategy was a bust."