US unemployment rate drops in December
The US unemployment rate dropped to 9.4% in December from 9.8% in November, the biggest one-month drop since April 1998, official figures show.
Some 103,000 jobs were created last month, the Labor Department said, although this was fewer than the 145,000 to 175,000 forecast.
The lower rate came not only because more people found jobs, but also because 260,000 had given up looking.
If people stop searching for work, they are no longer counted as unemployed.
Stubbornly high unemployment has hindered the US economic recovery.
President Obama said the jobs report showed a clear trend towards economic growth, as the pace of hiring was picking up.
He said tax cuts would help employment and urged businesses who were thinking about creating jobs to press ahead.
"If you are planning on making investments in the future, make them now and that will help us grow the economy," he said.
"We want businesses to grow, we want this economy to grow and we want to put people back to work."
Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke warned that it may take up to five years for the unemployment rate to drop to a more historically typical 6%.
But he added that while the economy should grow more strongly this year as consumers and businesses boosted their spending.
But he added a warning: "Notwithstanding these hopeful signs... [with] employers reportedly still reluctant to add to payrolls, considerable time likely will be required before the unemployment rate has returned to a more normal level.
"Persistently high unemployment, by damping household income and confidence, could threaten the strength and sustainability of the recovery."
Overall employment for October and November was revised to show 70,000 more job gains than earlier reported, and the unemployment rate is now at its lowest since May 2009.
Private hiring increased in December by 113,000, while government employment fell by 10,000.
Employment rose by 47,000 in the leisure and hospitality sector and by 36,000 in healthcare, but was little changed in other major industries, the Labor Department said in its monthly report.
The falling rate appeared to counter concerns over fewer-than expected jobs being created, with shares on Wall Street relatively unchanged in early trading.
Meanwhile the euro rose into positive territory against the dollar after the report, but then relinquished those gains.
"The headline miss [on jobs created] is pretty bad, but the drop in the unemployment rate is the one reason why the dollar has not collapsed completely," said Brian Dolan, chief strategist from Forex.com.
"Overall, a very disappointing number that reinforces the idea that we're in for a long, slow jobless recovery."
Moody's Analytics economist Ryan Sweet said while the job market was likely to improve, the lower unemployment rate was unlikely to be sustained.
And economist Peter Morici, professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, agreed that this was a disappointing set of data.
He said that while there had been a string of stimulus measures taken in the US - the country's huge trade deficit was holding back job creation because the country was importing far more than it produced.
"The growing trade deficit is a tax on domestic demand that offsets much of the benefits of stimulus spending and tax cuts," he said.
Meanwhile, US business group, the Conference Board, said that while the job market had more momentum than it did going into 2010, the report "won't help the continuing weakness in consumer confidence".