"The recovery is speeding up," Obama said after the January employment report was released.
— THE CAUTIOUS AND THE SKEPTICAL
In a few weeks, entrepreneur Joe Wong will open a restaurant overseeing the Sacramento River in Redding, Calif. The eatery, View 202, will employ 100.
But Wong, president of J&A Food Service, isn't convinced the economy is improving. He knows he'll have to keep menu prices down to attract the budget-conscious. Unemployment still exceeds 11 percent in Redding.
"We'll probably have 1,000 apply" for jobs, Wong says. The January jobs report is "going to get everybody excited. But we've heard it before. It just comes back down."
Farther south, the economy is only starting to improve in California's Riverside and San Bernardino counties, an area that was clobbered when housing prices plunged.
"We still have large numbers of foreclosures on the books, and property values and sales taxes are also lagging behind projections," says Tom Freeman, a Riverside County commissioner.
At least, Freeman says, businesses that sell goods overseas have been a bright spot.
In downtown Indianapolis, Windsor Jewelry hired a part-time worker for the holidays, then made him full-time as demand held up. Owner Greg Bires says he might hire another person this year. Business is a little steadier now.
Still, rising gold prices have pinched the company.
"That's been the biggest problem — just not knowing what tomorrow was going to bring," Bires says. "So we've been kind of afraid to make any major changes."
Among the highest-profile skeptics of an improving job market is Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner in the presidential race.
On Friday, Romney blamed Obama's policies for slowing the recovery, hurting families and making it harder for businesses to rebound.
"And for that," Romney said at a campaign stop in Nevada, "the president deserves the blame that he'll receive in this campaign."
— THE DISCOURAGED
Job seekers still face tough odds. There are still more than four unemployed Americans, on average, for every job opening. In a healthy economy, by contrast, that ratio would be roughly 2-to-1.
Sara Pereda, an executive assistant in New York City's entertainment industry, has applied for several job openings and received no responses, even though she's sure she was qualified. The same for many of her friends. Pereda, 30, has been seeking a job with more opportunity for advancement.
"You can send out 10 résumés and get one — and that's a maybe," Pereda says.
In Buffalo, N.Y., Rosanne DiPizio, vice president of her family's DiPizio Construction, says there isn't enough work for her company to justify hiring right now. It relies mostly on government road-construction contracts. And governments have been cutting back.
DiPizio also runs a concrete plant that would normally employ 100. It's down to 85.
"We will employ more if we have more work," she says. "It's that simple."
Jeff Searcy says fewer people are showing up at a support group he runs for job hunters at a church in Charlotte, N.C. Searcy isn't sure why. The area is suffering from 9.9 percent unemployment, far above the national average.
"We know it's not because everyone has found a job," Searcy says.
"After you've been to 10 lectures on networking, how much more can you learn?"
Aaron Cruz of Indianapolis says that while hiring has picked up, there's a catch: Landing a job can mean accepting part-time work or a pay cut. Cruz lost his job as a truck driver in December 2008. He didn't find full-time work again until last June.
His old job paid $23 an hour; his new one, $14.
"The money I'm making now at this new job ... I made in my mid-20s," he says. "I'm 42 now."
He doesn't put much stock in better employment numbers. People forced to take part-time jobs once they exhaust their unemployment aid, Cruz notes, aren't counted as unemployed. Yet they still struggle.