Jules Witcover is a Tribune Media Services columnist.

The Labor Department broke the news the other day for which the Obama administration has been waiting for months: The national unemployment rate has dropped to a flat 9 percent from 9.4 percent the previous month.

The figure is not yet down to the promised post-recession rate of 8 percent, but it's the closest it's been since the current economic cloud blanketed the country. Yet there is little joy in Obamaville, because the same announcement also noted that only 36,000 new jobs were created, far below the 145,000 forecast for the month by leading economists.

There were, to be sure, extenuating circumstances. Some 590,000 fewer workers were seeking employment, and the severe winter weather was a factor. Still, the drop in the rate from 9.8 percent in November was welcomed by numbers-crunchers who prefer to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. Many forecasters had indicated the rate probably wouldn't drop to 9 percent until the end of this year.

In his State of the Union address, the president placed heavy emphasis on job creation as the key to economic recovery, and it is also key to his political fortunes as he strives to recover from the heavy Democratic losses in the midterm congressional elections. And the skies seemed to brighten somewhat from the compromises he struck with the Republicans in the recent lame-duck session of Congress.

The White House has always said that the key to the economic recovery is private sector hiring, which has lagged in spite of huge profits over the last year in corporate and banking quarters. Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, was quick to put the latest numbers in the most favorable light. Goolsbee trumpeted that "revisions to private sector payroll data show that 1.1 million jobs were added during 2010, the strongest private sector job growth since 2006," and that "private sector employment has now grown for 11 consecutive months."

He noted that 49,000 new manufacturing jobs were added last month, 36,700 in retail and wholesale trade and 31,000 in professional and business services. At the same time, however, jobs in transportation and warehousing were down 38,000; 32,000 were lost in construction; 10,000 were lost in finance and the same number were shed in local government. "Severe weather in some parts of the country," Goolsbee said, "may have impacted employment and hours in some industries."

The mixed blessings of the latest figures come, for good or ill for the Obama administration, at a time the White House and the American public have been riveted to the stormy protests in the streets of Cairo that have shaken the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

At a time Obama might have been expected to make the most of the drop in the unemployment rate at home, he and his chief foreign policy and political aides have been struggling to find the proper posture regarding the swiftly developing events imperiling the Mubarak regime and U.S. relations toward a longtime ally.

Early on in the crisis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Egyptian government "stable," and Vice President Joe Biden in a PBS television interview said he did not see Mubarak as a "dictator." Since then, Obama has moved from early tentativeness and caution about the regime to calling on Mubarak directly to give up power and meanwhile to harness government-supported brutality against the anti-Mubarak demonstrators.

The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has called on Mubarak, who has said only he will not seek reelection in the fall, to embrace transition starting "now" to a government demanded by the protesters. Biden in a direct telephone conversation told Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, newly appointed by Mubarak, that it was up to the regime to ensure "that peaceful demonstrations don't lead to violence and intimidation," though it has already occurred.

With all this going on, Obama can take little comfort in the small ray of light from the lower unemployment rate at home. His hopes of focusing his next two years laser-like on the American economy have smacked up against the reality of presidential global responsibilities in demanding times.

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