Charlotte, North Carolina (CNN) – President Barack Obama and his GOP critics engaged in a war of spin Friday over news that the economy had added 162,000 jobs in March. The president claimed credit for a nascent economic recovery while Republicans argued that the administration has stifled stronger potential growth.
March was only the third month with job gains since the recession began three years ago, according to the Labor Department. Last month's national unemployment rate, however, held steady at 9.7 percent.
The country has successfully "turned the corner," Obama told an audience at a lithium battery company in North Carolina. "This has been a harrowing time for our country" but "the worst of the storm is over."
The president acknowledged that some of his administration's economic policies have not been popular, but insisted the country cannot return to the more conservative hands-off regulatory philosophy traditionally favored by the GOP.
We can't forget "the failed economic policies that got us into this mess," he warned.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, in turn, blasted Obama and dismissed much of March's job growth as a product of the U.S. Census Bureau's addition of 48,000 jobs for its once-in-a-decade headcount of the U.S. population.
"It is unacceptable for President Obama to declare economic success when unemployment remains at 9.7 percent and a large portion of the job growth came from temporary boost in government employment," he said.
"As Democrats grow Big Government, Americans grow weary of the strain on family budgets, job security and peace of mind. As America's employers announce the frightening and immediate impact of the Democrat government-run health care experiment on their balance sheets, American workers wonder why the only place exempt from increasingly painful belt-tightening seems to be Washington, D.C."
Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House of Representatives, conceded that "any report showing that the economy added jobs is clearly a better alternative to one showing that it lost more jobs." But, he said, Americans "must set our sights higher, our goals larger, and our actions bolder."
Georgia GOP Rep. Tom Price, a leading House conservative, argued that while the job growth was "welcome news," the country is "yet to see the robust private sector job creation the Obama administration promised would come" from its stimulus plan.
Employers, Price claimed, "particularly small businesses, are staring at a litany of tax increases, new government mandates, and onerous regulations, all of which threatens to derail their plans for the future."
White House Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer acknowledged in a written statement that the U.S. labor market "remains severely distressed." But she claimed that the March jobs figures show "continued signs of gradual labor market healing."
"Even after adjusting for the 48,000 temporary Census workers hired and a rebound effect from the February snowstorms, this number suggests an increase in underlying payroll employment," she said.
"While this is the most positive jobs report we have had in three years, there will likely be bumps in the road ahead. ... It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report, positive or negative. It is essential that we continue our efforts to move in the right direction and generate steady, strong job gains."
The U.S. economy has suffered a net loss of 8.2 million jobs since the start of 2008, a month after the official start of the recession. The White
House and congressional Democrats passed a sweeping $862 billion economic stimulus program last year to help spark a recovery.
There are currently 15 million people counted as unemployed, down 607,000 since the record high hit in October. The average time those unemployed have been out of a job now stands at just under eight months, a record-long duration.
– CNN's Chris Isidore, Alan Silverleib and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report