U.S. companies are adding jobs slowly and unevenly, just enough to plug the dike against a wave of fears that the economy could slip back into recession.
But with a ballooning debt crisis in Europe sending ripples across the Atlantic and anxiety continuing over the tortured political landscape here, there is little indication that U.S. employers will hire enough to put the millions of unemployed people back to work any time soon.
The Labor Department said Friday that U.S. employers added 103,000 net new jobs in September, indicating that the economy is at least not weakening and that businesses have weathered the oil price shocks and the Japanese disaster-related supply chain disruptions earlier this year.
The government also revised its estimates upward for the previous two months, suggesting that job growth in the summer was better than originally reported. Although the numbers staved off the bleakest prognosis for now, the Labor Department's monthly snapshot captures the economic challenges as President Barack Obama continues to press Congress to pass his jobs bill.
The economy is not growing fast enough to bring down the unemployment rate, which held steady at 9.1 percent in September. Local governments and school districts are cutting large numbers of workers. And about a third of the jobs added by the private sector last month were actually 45,000 Verizon workers who had been on strike during August and were simply returning to work.
More than two years after the recovery officially began, 14 million people are still searching for work, a little less than half of them for six months or longer.
The employment numbers for last month were "certainly not consistent with recession," said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR. But "it's certainly not off to the races, and in absolute terms it is still very, very weak."
The tepid jobs report provided more ammunition for Obama's Republican rivals, who seized on Friday's results as further evidence of what they say is the president's ineffective stewardship of the economy.
Large-scale job losses might have offered Obama help in pressuring Congress on his jobs bill. Strong growth in employment would help counter criticism from Republican presidential candidates. But the so-so results merely add to his dilemma.
"The president is offering only bad medicine — higher taxes, more spending, more dubious 'green jobs' boondoggles, and more tactical blame-gaming," Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said in a statement from her presidential campaign.
The rhetoric from Capitol Hill was equally critical.
"Across the country, millions of people remain out of work, and uncertainty from Washington continues to freeze capital and prevent businesses small and large from hiring," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader.
In an interview, Gene Sperling, Obama's chief economic adviser, said that critics of the jobs plan offered no viable alternative.
"For anyone in Washington to look at an economy with 9.1 percent unemployment and projections that growth will be too weak to even improve it to then argue that we should sit on our hands and just do nothing is simply inexcusable," Sperling said. The jobs bill, he said, is "an insurance policy against even the risk of a double-dip recession."
Some recent data paint a slightly better picture of the economy. Auto sales rose nearly 10 percent in September to their highest level in five months, and sales at chain stores increased last month.
Health care was one of the strongest sectors, along with professional and business services. Manufacturing, which had shown solid job growth for more than a year, lost 13,000 jobs in September.
The weakest results were in the public sector, with local government shedding 35,000 jobs, 24,400 in public education.