Associated Press
FILE - In this March 7, 2012, file photo shows job seekers standing line during the Career Expo job fair, in Portland, Ore. Employers pulled back sharply on hiring last month, a reminder that the U.S. economy may not be growing fast enough to sustain robust job growth. The unemployment rate dipped, but mostly because more Americans stopped looking for work. The Labor Department says the economy added 120,000 jobs in March, down from more than 200,000 in each of the previous three months. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

March's jobless rate was 8.2 percent, a good number, the lowest level in three years and continuing a steady monthly decline that began last August, and that's how the White House will spin it.

But there's no getting around the fact that the 8.2 percent figure was both a disappointment and an unpleasant surprise. It was that low only because many Americans stopped looking for work and thus weren't counted in the survey.

The hopes were that for the fourth month in a row the economy would add more than 200,000 jobs. One respected forecast predicted 205,000 jobs and even the most pessimistic foresaw 175,000.

Instead the economy added only 120,000 jobs, the least since last October, an indication that the job market recovery has effectively stalled, one hopes only temporarily.

The private sector added 121,000 jobs but that was offset by a cut of 1,000 in government payrolls. Still, that 1,000 figure may be an indication that public sector layoffs have started to plateau.

Male participation in the workforce was up 14,000, but female participation was down 177,000, mainly due to layoffs in the retail sector, where the workforce is heavily female, and an 8,000 decline in hiring by temporary help firms.

Searching for some scrap of good news in the March numbers, Alan Krueger, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, noted, "Manufacturing continues to be a bright spot and added 37,000 jobs in March."

And then he rather undercut that message by adding, "After losing millions of good manufacturing jobs in the years before and during the recession, the economy has added 466,000 manufacturing jobs in the past 25 months — the strongest growth for any 25 month period since September 1995."

In other words, we're still millions of manufacturing jobs short of where we need to be.

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Economic growth slowed to 2 percent in the first quarter, below economists' expectations of 2.5 percent for the year. As the Associated Press points out, "Normally, it takes annual growth of 4 percent to lower the unemployment rate 1 percentage point over a year."

For what consolation it's worth to the White House, other economic indicators — consumer spending, investing in plant and equipment, factory orders and output — are strong, outpacing that of the European Union.

If the March jobless figures are an aberration, President Barack Obama should be OK on that issue come the fall campaign. But if they reflect a trend, he will be very much on the defensive.