WASHINGTON — The United States added 227,000 jobs in February as the nation has put together the strongest three months of job growth since the Great Recession.
The unemployment rate stayed at 8.3 percent. It was the first time in six months that the rate did not fall, but that was only because a half-million Americans, perhaps finally seeing hope in the economy, started looking for work.
The Labor Department also said Friday that December and January, already two of the best months for jobs since the recession, were even stronger than first estimated. It added 61,000 jobs to its total for those two months combined.
Economists were expecting February job growth of 210,000.
"Overall, another very strong payroll report, and there's every chance that March will bring more of the same," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist with Capital Economics, an economic consulting company.
Since the start of December, the U.S. added 734,000 jobs. The only better three-month stretch since the recession was March through May 2010, when the government was hiring tens of thousands of temporary census workers.
The improving jobs picture figures to improve the re-election chances for Obama and to complicate the political strategy for the Republicans competing for the right to replace him.
Republicans seeking the White House have accused Obama of failing to steer the economy out of a deep recession, setting up the health of the nation's economy as an issue in the 2012 election.
Obama on Friday visited a manufacturing plant run by Rolls-Royce, a maker of aircraft engines, in Virginia, a state expected to be closely contested in November.
"The economy is getting stronger," the president said. "When I come to places like this and I see the work that's being done, it gives me confidence there are better days ahead."
Mitt Romney, the Republican leader in delegates among Obama's would-be challengers, did not directly address the fresh economic data at a stop in Mississippi, but he criticized Obama for failing to bring the unemployment rate below 8 percent.
The unemployment rate has remained above 8 percent since February 2009, a month after Obama's inauguration, a point regularly hammered by Romney. But as more jobs are created, it is likely that the rate will fall below 8 percent by Election Day.
An Associated Press survey of leading economists late last month showed the U.S. economy is improving faster than economists had expected. They now foresee slightly stronger growth and hiring than they did two months earlier — trends that would help Obama's re-election hopes in November.
Factors restraining the U.S. economy seem to be easing, or at least less damaging than they were. Greece struck a deal to get an international bailout and avoid a default later this month that could have rattled the world financial system.
While the price of gasoline is the highest on record for this time of year, that has less of a bite when the economy is growing and Americans feel more confident.