President Obama hailed Friday's positive economic report showing a burst of hiring and lower unemployment figures than expected as evidence that his administration's policies are getting the country back on track.
"Altogether more private sector jobs were created in 2011 than any year since 2005," Mr. Obama said during a visit to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Friday. "There are a lot of people that are still hurting out there. After losing more than 8 million jobs in the recession, obviously we have a lot more work to do. But it is important for the American people to recognize that we've now added 3.2 million new private sector jobs over the last 22 months -- nearly 2 million jobs last year alone."
The nation added 200,000 jobs in December, driving down the unemployment rate from an adjusted 8.7 percent in November to 8.5 percent — the lowest level in almost three years. The figures, the fourth straight monthly improvement in the unemployment rate, raised hopes that the economy might finally be healthy enough to power an even stronger job market.
Four long years after the start of a Great Recession that wiped out 8.7 million jobs, a Labor Department report Friday showed that the past six months have been the strongest for job creation in the United States since 2006.
The president also called on Congress to pass a payroll tax cut extending through the end of 2012, without delay and "a lot of drama." Congress managed to pass a short-term extension of the temporary tax cut after a week-long standoff just before Christmas.
"A lot of families are still having a tough time," Mr. Obama said. A lot of small businesses are still having a tough time. But we're starting to rebound. We're moving in the right direction. We have made real progress. Now is not the time to stop."
Speaker John Boehner also welcomed the positive numbers but said Washington must do far more to help the economy fully rebound.
"It's good news that more Americans found work last month despite a sluggish economy, but both parties must come together and do more to address the ongoing uncertainty that small businesses face," he said in a statement.
Despite Friday's positive report, Republicans argue that the slight downward shift in unemployment is not significant enough to alleviate economic strains for many Americans, including African-Americans whose unemployment rate closed out 2011 at 15.8 percent, unchanged from a year earlier, and Hispanics, whose unemployment remained relatively stagnant at 11 percent.
Friday's report also suggested that December's jobs numbers may represent only a seasonal bump in hiring.
Mr. Obama made the remarks while visiting the CFPB, the new agency charged with protecting American consumers from predatory lending and financial fraud.
The president roiled relations with Congress Wednesday by filling vacancies in his administration while Congress was out of town, even though the Senate was technically still in session to prevent just such a move. For months, Republicans in the Senate had blocked one of the most high-profile of those appointments, Richard Cordray's nomination to head the CFPB, because they disagreed with the scope and power of the agency under the 2010 law.
Mr. Obama's "recess" appointment bypassed Congress, broke at least three historical precedents, and set up a constitutional showdown between the executive and legislative branches of government.
During his visit to the new bureau's offices Friday, Mr. Obama boldly continued to back the appointment of Mr. Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, and defended the agency's role in protecting consumers.
"No longer are consumers left alone to face unfair or unacceptable or abusive practices," Mr. Obama. "We can make sure that students don't start off life saddled with debt because of a lousy deal. We can help give everybody the clear and transparent information they need to make [financial decisions], and companies can compete for their business in an open and honest way," he said.
The president also acknowledged former adviser Elizabeth Warren, who helped establish the CFPB and is now running for the seat of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts.
The brighter-than-expected economic news seemed to have boosted the president's spirits as he smiled broadly and thanked the new CFPB officials for agreeing to leave the private sector to help get the agency up and running.
— This article was based in part on reporting from the Associated Press.
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