Updated at 4:10 p.m.
The unemployment rate held steady at 9.6 percent in September, according to this morning's much-anticipated Labor Department jobs figures -- the last to be released before the November 2 midterm elections.
The number was slightly better than economists' forecasts, which predicted a small uptick in unemployment. But the static figure offers little comfort for congressional Democrats battling to stay in office amid a struggling economy.
The Labor Department also released data showing a worse-than-expected overall loss of 95,000 non-farm jobs in September. Much of that came as a result of losses in temporary census jobs (77,000) and cuts to employment at the local government level (76,000). The private sector added 64,000 jobs, though that was not enough to counter the impact of government job losses.
The persistently high rate of unemployment promises to loom large over the midterm elections. Americans place far greater weight on the unemployment rate as a barometer of the economy's well-being than they do on other metrics, such as stock market gains or GDP growth. A recent Allstate/National Journal poll found that 43 percent of Americans view the unemployment rate as the single best indicator of the overall health of the economy.
Republicans seized on the overall job losses as evidence that Democrats' economic policies had failed and that businesses were suffering from uncertainty about government regulation.
"This disappointing jobs report demonstrates the pressing need to immediately enact the Pledge to America and help end the uncertainty caused by Washington Democrats' out-of-control spending spree and job-killing policies," House Minority Leader John Boehner said in a statement.
President Obama addressed the disappointing numbers in remarks today at a Maryland masonry block manufacturer -- a small business that he said had begun adding jobs. Obama pointed to the growth in private-sector employment as a sign of progress while acknowledging that the broader job market picture was far from rosy.
Obama took a shot at Republicans for opposing federal aid for state and local governments, which were hit particularly hard by job losses last month.
"These continuing layoffs by state and local governments -- of teachers and police officers and firefighters and the like -- would have been even worse without the federal help that we've provided to states over the last 20 months -- help that the Republicans in Congress have consistently opposed," he said.
The 9.6 percent jobless rate does not fully capture some worrisome aspects of the labor market because it excludes unemployed workers no longer searching for work, as well as those who took part-time jobs because they could not find full-time employment.
The figures on so-called involuntary part-time workers are particularly troubling. Their ranks swelled by 612,000 to 9.5 million last month and have risen by nearly one million since July. A more comprehensive measure of unemployment that includes both involuntary part-time workers and discouraged workers rose to 17.1 percent from 16.7 percent in August.
At the local level, education bore the brunt of the losses, with nearly 50,000 fewer jobs in that sector.
Where Democrats' electoral prospects are concerned, even positive job news would likely have done little to change perceptions of the economy's health. History has shown that economy-minded voters make their decisions based on data from several months before the election, not the numbers in the October jobs report.