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White House, GOP dispute significance of upbeat jobs report

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Feb. 2, 2012: People wait in line during a job fair for Home Depot at the WorkSource Oregon in Tigard, Ore. (AP)

Republicans on Friday downplayed the latest jobs report that showed the unemployment rate on a steady downward trend, describing the improvements as welcome but “anemic.”

The White House, meanwhile, cited the report as “encouraging” evidence that the economy is on the upswing, and urged Congress to support jobs measures backed by President Obama to keep that trend going.

With election season in full swing, the Labor Department reports are bound to serve as a political football every month until November. His administration under fire on the campaign trail for slow economic growth despite stimulus funding and other measures, Obama is eager for some good news.

But Republicans are urging caution at the latest news, noting that the improvements hardly represent the burst of economic activity the country needs.

"Anemic growth is not growth. We need to make dramatic change to the tax code and draw back job-killing regulations,” Newt Gingrich said in a written statement.

Mitt Romney, who along with Gingrich and other GOP presidential candidates will compete in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, called the jobless report “welcome” news – no thanks to Obama.

“Unfortunately, these numbers cannot hide the fact that President Obama's policies have prevented a true economic recovery. We can do better,” he said. Romney pointed out that long-term unemployment, which has held steady at about 43 percent, is “at record levels.” Millions of others are underemployed or have stopped seeking work.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, also said the number of people who have stopped looking for full-time work has played a factor in the rate decline.

"This feels like a Charles Dickens novel. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he said.

Still, the drop to 8.3 percent marked the fifth straight month of decline – due in large part to a hiring spree in the private sector.

The January rate reported Friday is the lowest point in nearly three years. The economy created 243,000 net jobs in January, the most in nine months.

White House economic adviser Alan Krueger called the trend "encouraging."

"Today's employment report provides further evidence that the economy is continuing to heal from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression," he said in a statement.

He pushed for Congress to extend the payroll tax cut and approve new long-term jobless benefits, "and take the additional steps that President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address to create an economy built to last."

Many Republicans support an extension of the payroll tax cut but are at odds with Democrats over how to pay for it.

Employers have added an average of 201,000 jobs a month in the past three months. That's 50,000 more jobs per month than the economy averaged in each month last year.

The Labor Department's January jobs report was filled with other encouraging data and revisions.

Hiring was widespread across many high-paying industries. Pay increased. And the economy added 200,000 more jobs in 2011 than first thought.

The unemployment rate is nearly a percentage point lower than over the summer, when many feared a recession was imminent. The last time the unemployment rate has dropped for five straight months was in late 1994.

Impressively, the job gains last month were spread across the economy.

The unemployment rate fell even as more people began looking for work. But a much larger number said they found work.

Even with the gains, the job market faces a long way back to full health. The nation has about 5.6 million fewer jobs than it did when the recession began in late 2007.

There are still 12.8 million people out of work, though that is the fewest since the recession ended. An additional 11 million are either working part-time but would prefer full-time work, or have stopped searching for jobs.

When all those groups are combined, nearly 24 million are considered "underemployed." The so-called "underemployment" rate ticked down in January to 15.1 percent, from 15.2 percent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.