The nation’s unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in nearly three years at the end of 2011, as a burst of private-sector hiring helped sustain what has been a positive trend lately in the job market.

The rate, which dipped to 8.5 percent in December, has dropped for four straight months. The direction of the numbers could help soften the political blow of what remains a tough economy for President Obama, who is charging into a competitive re-election year.

Republicans cited Friday’s report as good news, but accused Democrats of ignoring their prescription for even better employment growth and continued to remind voters that the rate remains above 8 percent — the level that Obama’s team once promised would represent the ceiling on unemployment with the passage of the 2009 stimulus package.

“It went past 8 percent, and it hasn’t been back since,” presidential candidate Mitt Romney said at a campaign stop in South Carolina Friday.

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