AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. The U.S. economy added 120,000 jobs last month according to the Labor Department. A few years ago, that would have had economists cheering. Today, they're using words like disappointing. Here's the problem, 120,000 is half as many jobs as the economy added in February and far fewer than most observers were expecting.
The unemployment rate did inch down to 8.2 percent, but that's because many Americans simply stopped looking for work. The lackluster report comes as the job market appeared to gaining steam. And as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, it complicated President Obama's reelection message.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama immediately tried to put the best face on today's jobs report. He said the 120,000 jobs added in March are part of a larger trend that points in the right direction.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our economy's now created more than 4 million private sector jobs over the past two years and more than 600,000 in the past three months alone. But...
HORSLEY: And it's a significant but. Last month's job gains were way below what was expected and a painful reminder of what happened in the last two winters when the economy seemed to be picking up strength only to stall out in the spring.
OBAMA: 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.
HORSLEY: The sudden slowdown was all the more dramatic for being a surprise. Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report says that's potentially damaging for Mr. Obama, whose reelection chances may hinge on the economy.
NATHAN GONZALES: The expectations certainly hurt the president, the White House and kind of a cup of cold water on an otherwise positive trend that we've been seeing the past few months.
HORSLEY: Just as better-than-expected jobs numbers in January and February strengthened the president's hand, the March figures could give ammunition to his Republican challenger. Mitt Romney's been arguing the recovery ought to be stronger, so Gonzales says a lot depends on where the job market goes from here.
GONZALES: The most important thing for the president is with the trend over the next few months going into the early and late summer, it's also important to remember that how people feel about the economy is almost more important than how the economy is actually doing.
HORSLEY: There are some encouraging details in the Labor report. Layoffs by state and local governments appear to be tapering off and factories are still adding tens of thousands of jobs, a facet of the overall picture the president's been highlighting. White House economic advisor Alan Krueger say factory growth over the last two years is the strongest it's been since the mid-'90s.
ALAN KRUEGER: Given the president's focus on manufacturing, this is an area that we can continue to see improvement in the United States.
HORSLEY: And that could be important this November in factory-heavy swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. On the other hand, the construction industry continues to languish, shedding another 7,000 jobs last month. Krueger notes the unemployment rate among construction workers now tops 17 percent, more than twice the national average.
KRUEGER: It's unfortunate for the economy. It's unfortunate for the families of the construction workers, which is why the president has so strongly supporting investing more in infrastructure.
HORSLEY: So far, however, Congress has shown little appetite for that. Much of the slowdown in hiring last month was in temporary jobs. Those are sometime an early indicator of what's in store for the broader economy, though political analyst Gonzales says it's too soon to tell.
GONZALES: This certainly isn't what the White House wanted, but I think they realize that we still have seven months before Election Day and there will be more months of jobs numbers to come out. And all they can do is work as hard as they can and hope that the numbers get better.
HORSLEY: Millions of Americans still looking for work can also hope that the March numbers were just a seasonal sniffle, a bit of economic hay fever and not the onset of a cold. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.