The January unemployment figures are in, and the national unemployment rate has fallen below 10%, now at 9.7%, but the economy lost 20,000 jobs. So what's the political take-away?

Double digits have always been the psychic barrier for unemployment: the White House braced itself for double-digit unemployment for months after it took office, amid rising GOP criticism in anticipation of the 10.0% mark being broken. It did, and now it's back down. Time to celebrate? Perhaps.

Cable news this morning has highlighted the double-edged sword here: yes, unemployment is down overall, and some sectors (manufacturing and retail, for instance) gained, but the economy (including the construction sector) lost jobs. About 409,000 more people were counted as marginally attached to the labor force, because they hadn't looked for a job in the past month, and thus weren't counted as unemployed.

There is disagreement over whether the new numbers are good or bad.

The White House reaction was consistent with how it's handled cosmetically good economic news like falling unemployment and GDP growth in the past few months: the reactions are tentative, and the message is that it's good news, but things are still unacceptably bad and we still need to pass a jobs bill.

The White House is still trying to pass a jobs bill through Congress, along with President Obama's proposal for small business assistance. That initiative was evident in Council of Economic Advsers Chair Christina Romer's statement on the numbers:

...Even as today's numbers contain signs of the beginning of recovery, they are also a reminder of how far we still have to go to return the economy to robust health and full employment.  Indeed, with the benchmark revision announced today, we now know that the total job loss over the recession was more than 1 million larger than previously estimated.  That is why at the same time that he released a plan for reining in the budget deficit over the medium and long run, the President has called on Congress to enact responsible, targeted actions to jump-start job creation.  His proposals for a small business jobs and wages tax cut and a new program to encourage small business lending are important steps to help the businesses that are essential to robust job creation.  Today's numbers showing continued decline in construction and state and local government employment emphasize the importance of two other of the President's priorities--continued infrastructure investment and additional aid for strapped state and local governments...

But the cosmetics of the new numbers can't be ignored. The national unemployment rate has been used more consistently than any other figure as a broad, popular indication of how the economy is doing. Conservatives who talk about "real" unemployment, and analysts who highlight the changing pool of the labor force and its effect on the numbers, are essentially arguing against the easily consumable piece of data.

At the very least--and despite the White House and Democratic Party's unwillingness to turn the unemployment rate into a full-on political football--doube-digit unemployment won't be a cudgel for the White House's critics. In February, that is.

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