KEY POINTS
  • President Joe Biden touted the strong wage gains achieved during his first year in office, following the release of December's jobs numbers.
  • The unemployment rate in December fell to a new post-pandemic low of 3.9%, but the economy added only 199,000 new jobs, less than half of what economists expected.
  • Biden dismissed critics who say his administration is ignoring the link between those higher wages and current runaway inflation, calling the critique "malarkey."

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Friday that the strong wage gains achieved during his first year in office represent the economy he promised Americans, as he addressed the release of December's jobs report.

Average hourly earnings rose 0.6% for the month and were up 4.7% year over year. Some industries have seen especially strong wage growth in the last year: Leisure, hospitality and restaurant wages have increased a whopping 14.1% over the past 12 months, outpacing all other industries.

"This is the economy I promised and hoped for," Biden said in remarks at the White House. "Where the biggest benefits go to the people who work the hardest and who are more often left behind. The people who have been ignored before. The people who just want a decent chance to build a decent life for their families."

The unemployment rate in December fell to a new post-pandemic low of 3.9%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But the economy added only 199,000 new jobs to nonfarm payrolls, less than half of what economists had predicted.

Biden framed the nationwide labor shortage as a reflection of more worker choice and mobility, not, as his critics allege, a year of overly generous government pandemic benefits that have sapped people's need to work for a living.

Americans aren't quitting jobs in record numbers to stay home, Biden said. "They're moving up to better jobs, with better pay, with better benefits.

"This isn't about workers walking away and refusing to work. It's about workers able to take a step up to provide for themselves and their families," he said.

Biden gave relatively little attention Friday to the inflation that is a part and parcel of the strong wage growth. In short, the cost of workers is rising along with the cost of everything else.

He dismissed critics who say his administration is ignoring the link between those higher wages and current runaway inflation rates, calling the critique being leveled at him by Republicans and some economists "malarkey."

But polls consistently show that inflation is Americans' biggest economic concern, and public anger about high prices has helped to drive Biden's approval ratings down to record lows in recent months.

"I know that even as jobs and family's incomes have recovered, families are still feeling the pinch of prices and costs," he said. "So we're taking that on as well."

Economists say there is little Biden can do in the short term to turn around inflationary trends that are driven by pandemic-fueled economic shifts and disruptions around the world.

Friday's numbers come at a crossroads for the U.S. economy, as more than half a million new Covid cases per day, many related to the omicron variant, threaten to stall an economic recovery that looks to accelerate in 2022.

-- CNBC's Jeff Cox contributed to this report.