Even the bad news came with a positive spin: Although the monthly unemployment rate remained unchanged in February, at 8.3 percent, economists said that was a result of more people starting to look for work again in response to the growing economy. Government data showed that 476,000 people joined the labor force last month.
“To the extent there is a debate, it’s whether the economy is recovering or recovering strongly,” said Justin Wolfers, visiting professor of economics at Princeton University.
Of course, the optimism is still tempered with caution. The nation reported similar job growth around the same time last year that petered out during the second quarter. High gas prices could eat away at consumer spending and stifle demand. Some projections for the first quarter predict an annualized growth rate of less than 2 percent, a particularly anemic outlook considering the labor market gains.
But the scope of February’s job growth — encompassing manufacturing, health care, hospitality and all the other sectors — indicates that the rebound is more deeply rooted. Even the public sector staunched its losses after shedding an average of 22,000 positions a month last year. February also marked the 17th consecutive month of job increases, a record that is difficult to ignore.
“Overall, another very strong payroll report, and there’s every chance that March will bring more of the same,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist for Capital Economics.
In Washington and on the campaign trail, politicians balanced enthusiasm for the improving job market with an acknowledgement that nearly 13 million people remain unemployed.
The White House said the data show the economy is “continuing to heal” from the wounds of the “Great Recession” but also warned against reading too much into one month’s report. Speaking at a jet-engine plant Friday, President Obama said the recovery is getting stronger, and he highlighted gains in the industrial sector.
“When I come to places like this and see the work being done, it gives me confidence there are better days ahead,” he said. “The key now, our job now, is to keep this economic engine churning.”
Meanwhile, Republicans pointed to higher gas prices and the number of long-term unemployed people as signs that the president’s economic initiatives were not gaining enough traction.
“It is a testament to the hard work and entrepreneurship of the American people that they are creating any jobs in the midst of the onslaught of anti-business policies coming from this administration,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Friday.