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Obama touts unemployment rate; lowest in 19 months

President Obama touted the lowest unemployment rate in 19 months during a visit to a Maryland window manufacturer, where he also announced changes to his economic team.

The jobless rate fell to 9.4 percent in December as a strong holiday shopping season helped boost hiring among retailers and the manufacturing, health care and hospitality sectors added jobs.

But the report was mixed. Overall, the economy created a lower-than-expected 103,000 jobs during the month, and it's unclear whether the drop in the unemployment rate will be sustained. The economy added 1.1 million jobs over the course of the last year, amounting to an average of 94,000 a month, a pace that many economists say must be doubled to significantly bring down the unemployment rate.

After touring Thompson Creek, a company that plans to take advantage of new tax provisions passed during the lame-duck session of Congress, Obama talked up the performance of the private sector.

"We know these unemployment numbers can bounce around from month to month, but the trend is clear," he said. "We saw 12-straight months of private-sector job growth. That's the first time that's been true since 2006."

The White House has said that jobs and the economy will take center stage this year as the president looks to accelerate recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

He's almost certain to face resistance in the Republican-controlled Congress to any new spending to spur growth. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) called today's job numbers "encouraging," but said new policies were needed to reduce uncertainty, restore confidence, cut spending and grow the economy.

Economic team moves
Today, the president looked to a veteran presidential adviser who has had success in the area of economic policy in the past. He named Gene Sperling, currently serving as counselor to the treasury secretary, to replace Larry Summers as head the National Economic Council. Sperling served in the same role under President Clinton.

"One of the reasons I've selected Gene is he's done this before," Obama said. "In his tenure in the Clinton administration in the late 90s, he helped formulate the policies that contributed to turning deficits to surpluses and a time of prosperity and progress for American families in a sustained way."

Jason Furman, who was already on the president's economic team, has been promoted to assistant to the president for economic policy and principal deputy director of the National Economic Council. Obama also nominated Katharine Abraham as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers and Heather Higginbottom as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The new staff announcements are part of a "major retooling" meant to breathe new energy and bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the White House as the president looks ahead to the 2012 presidential campaign.

Yesterday, Obama tapped William Daley, who served as commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, as his new chief of staff. That move was expected to help strengthen ties with the business community -- which has nearly $2 trillion sitting on the sidelines that the White House wants to see invested to help jumpstart job growth.

The president plans to continue his outreach to the business community with a speech Feb. 7 at the Chamber of Commerce and he made a point at the Daley announcement of saying his fellow Chicagoan had led major corporations and had "a deep understanding of how jobs are created and how to grow our economy."

"Making it possible for businesses to succeed is how we ensure that our economy succeeds and all our people succeed. It's how we create jobs and that's what's guided my administration over the past two years," Obama said Friday.

More staff changes will be announced in the coming weeks, including a replacement for White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who is moving to an office a few blocks away to become a paid consultant to the president.

Obama also used his trip to the window manufacturer to urge more companies to follow its lead in taking advantage of a new tax provision that allows companies to deduct 100 percent of investments in equipment for the next two years, a provision the Treasury Department estimates will accelerate $150 billion in tax cuts for 2 million businesses over the next two years and help lower the average cost of investment by more than 75 percent.

"It is a great opportunity for companies to grow and add jobs," he said. "Now is the time to act. Companies who are listening out there, if you are planning or thinking about making investments some time in the future, make those investments now and you're gonna save money and that will help us grow the economy."