"The U.S. economy is just muddling through," said Tom di Galoma, managing director at Navigate Advisors in Stamford, Connecticut. And that's the optimistic take. The economy added 155,000 jobs in December which has been the average gain for the year.
The jobless rate held steady at 7.8 percent in December, down nearly a percentage point from a year earlier but still well above the average rate over the last 60 years of about 6 percent.
The Labor Department raised its estimate for the unemployment rate in November by a tenth of a point to 7.8 percent, citing a slight change in the labor market's seasonal swings.
Most economists expect the U.S. economy will be held back by tax hikes this year as well as by weak spending by households and businesses, which are still trying to reduce their debt burdens.
Friday's data nonetheless gave signals of some momentum in the labor market's recovery from the 2007-09 recession.
Gains in employment were distributed broadly throughout the economy, from manufacturing and construction to health care.
Also, many economists had expected December's payroll gains to be padded by one-time factors like the recovery from a mammoth storm that hit the East Coast in late October.
The government had said last month the storm had no substantial impact on the November data, and many economists expected the government on Friday to recant by revising downward its estimate for payroll gains in November. Instead, the government revised November payrolls upward by 15,000.
Average hourly earnings rose 0.3 percent last month, slightly more than analysts had expected, while the length of the average workweek was unchanged.
"This shows the economy is chugging along, with payroll gains at about the average it has been over the past year," Tom Porcelli, an economist at RBC Capital Markets in New York.
The best that can be said is that the jobs outlook isn't getting any worse. Of course, it's not getting any better either so there you have it; the perfect encapsulation of the Obama presidency.