The economy added a paltry 115,000 jobs last month—a notable downturn from this year’s earlier, more promising jobs reports and a possible sign of a stalling recovery. The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent, though only because people are dropping out of the work force.

The year got off to a promising start, when the first jobs report of the official election year revealed 212,000 jobs were added in December. January saw 243,000 jobs added, followed by 227,000 jobs in February. But March dipped to 120,000 jobs, and now we see 115,000 in April. (Some of these numbers have since been revised slightly).

Last year there was a similar early bump, followed by a slow decline in hiring. Could it be happening again? “April’s employment growth of only 115,000 jobs, along with a decline in labor force participation, is sobering news for workers and the economy,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project in a statement. “The economy needs a boost, with more investment to create jobs and higher wages for workers to stimulate greater demand.”

Here are some highlights of the jobs data:

  • There were 15,000 public sector job losses, which is up from last month and helped offset some growth in the public sector. The education field absorbed 10,700 of these public sector jobs losses. While private sector jobs growth has been positive for many months, 601,000 public sector jobs have been lost since June 2009.

  • Long-term unemployment continues to be a problem. The April jobs report revealed the average unemployed American has been without work for 39.1 weeks, or about nine months. Over 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months.

  • There are 7.9 million people working part-time involuntarily, and 2.4 million have stopped searching. This means that in total, there are 22.8 million people either unemployed or underemployed, creating a “real” unemployment rate of 14.5 percent.

  • Retail, restaurants and bars, healthcare and manufacturing sectors all enjoyed modest gains, while the transportation and warehousing saw job losses.

  • A small glimmer of hope—temporary help services saw an increase in hiring last month, which is usually a positive indicator of future, permanent hiring.

The Politics

There are only six months until the federal elections, so naturally the jobs report takes on huge import.

Democrats have a few things to hang their hats on: the private sector is still adding jobs, now for the twenty-sixth straight month—something the White House pointed out in its statement this morning and that its allies are working to highlight.

“This is our twenty-sixth month of private-sector jobs gains, which shows that despite Republicans’ politically motivated efforts to block economic progress during an election year, they will have a hard time convincing Americans in November that we’re not on the path to recovery thanks to the Obama administration,” said Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “April’s jobs numbers represent a graduation gift from the GOP to millions of college seniors who are this month entering a labor market that would have been a lot more welcoming if the Republicans hadn’t blocked the president’s job-creation bill.”

A popular Republican claim is that Obama promised in early 2009 that unemployment would be under 8 percent thanks to the stimulus—they bashed him repeatedly for this prediction when unemployment was well over 9 percent. The administration didn’t really promise this (it was one projection in a CEA report), but in any case an unemployment number close to 8 percent takes the steam out of this talking point. Granted, this is partially—but not entirely—because people are no longer looking for work, but since when have Republicans been honest about the unemployment situation anyhow? Most of the job losses under Obama came in the first three months of his presidency, before any policies had a chance to take effect. Ultimately, the lower the unemployment rate, the better for the White House.

Republicans on the Hill are highlighting (fairly) the still-dire employment situation and (unfairly) say it’s because Democrats won’t pass bills like the Keystone XL pipeline legislation. “The House has passed a series of bills to address high energy prices through projects like Keystone XL, remove government barriers to job growth, and stop Washington from spending money we don’t have,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a statement. “President Obama has shown what doesn’t work; now it’s time to try something we know will: getting the government out of the way of families and small businesses.” (Keystone would create at most 4,650 short-term construction jobs, according to one estimate).

Mitt Romney took an interesting approach to neutralizing the political gain from twenty-six straight months of growth, saying on Fox & Friends this morning, “We should be seeing numbers in the 500,000 jobs created per month. This is way, way off from what should happen in a normal recovery.” That would be lovely, of course, but as ThinkProgress points out, it has only happened four times in the past fifty years.