President Barack Obama offered hope Thursday that the faltering US economy will soon create more jobs, as he signed a multibillion-dollar employment package to aid the fragile recovery.
Signing into law a 17.6-billion-dollar measure designed to boost hiring, Obama said the economy was "beginning to move in the right direction," but admitted ordinary Americans were still bearing too great a burden from the economic crisis.
"Our economy is growing again and we may soon be adding jobs instead of losing them, the jobs bill I?m signing today is intended to help accelerate this process," Obama said in a signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
Addressing employers who have been slow to hire amid continued economic uncertainty, Obama said: "If you hire a worker who?s unemployed, you won't have to pay payroll taxes on that worker for the rest of the year."
The legislation also includes infrastructure investments for items like highway construction and help for states to build schools.
As US unemployment levels hover near double digits, the White House has struggled to claw back some of the estimated eight million jobs that have been lost since the economy entered recession in December 2007.
On Thursday the Labor Department reported new claims for unemployment insurance benefits dipped only marginally last week, with 457,000 Americans beginning to ask the government for help, down 5,000 from the previous week.
According to Ryan Sweet, a senior economist with Moody's Economy.com, employment is trending in the right direction, but the slow speed of change is "dashing any expectation that jobs will roar back."
For the Obama administration, speeding that recovery has become all the more urgent as the country faces midterm elections in November that will decide whether the president's Democratic Party keeps control of Congress.
But with the unemployment rate not expected to ease quickly, Obama and his treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, have begun to focus on more modest indications of recovery -- pointing to increased hours put in by workers and firms shifting employees to a full-time schedule.
Geithner earlier this week said more than 100,000 new jobs would need to be created each month in order to dent the unemployment rate.
"It's about explaining to people that you are not going to take unemployment from 10.1 percent back to the good old days of five percent quickly," said Ted Gayer, co-director of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
The anemic labor market continues to press on the world's largest economy, afflicting everything from consumer spending to housing markets.
On Thursday the Conference Board -- a New York research firm -- reported its index of key indicators rose just 0.1 percent in February, pointing to barely improving economic conditions.
But Obama has struggled to pass more sweeping measures, thwarted by the deep partisanship that has gripped Washington ahead of midterm elections.
The bill passed the Senate in a 68-29 vote, drawing support from 11 Republicans.
While the bill that emerged from the poisoned political atmosphere in Congress is much smaller than some advocates had hoped, it was trashed by some Republicans.
House Republican leader John Boehner said the bill "will do little, if anything, to put people back to work."
But Obama remained optimistic that further deals could come: "I hope it is a prelude to further cooperation in the days and months to come, as we continue the work of digging out of this recession and rebuilding our economy in a way that works for all Americans," he said.