President Barack Obama says Friday's mixed news on U.S. unemployment is cause for hope but not celebration.  Tthe president is asking lawmakers to support programs he says will help boost hiring.

The nation's jobless rate eased by three-tenths of a percent in January, to 9.7 percent, its lowest level in five months.  However, the Labor Department says 20,000 more jobs were lost last month.

President Obama says that is a small step in the right direction.

"These numbers, while positive, are cause for hope but not celebration, because far too many of our neighbors and friends and family are still out of work," he said.

Mr. Obama made the comments at a small mechanical contracting company near Washington, where he continued to promote policies designed to help small businesses increase hiring.

The president said there are encouraging signs in the latest numbers.  

"The job loss in January was a small fraction of what it was a year ago, and that the unemployment rate last month went down and not up," said the president.  "Understanding that these numbers will continue to fluctuate for months to come, these are welcome, if modest, signs of progress along the road to recovery," he added.

White House officials say a total of 8.4 million jobs have been lost in the past two years, and last year's economic stimulus bill simply cannot create that many jobs.  

Mr. Obama says the answer is to encourage hiring in small businesses.

"The true engine of job creation will always be businesses.  What government can do is fuel that engine by giving entrepreneurs and companies the support to open their doors and to expand and to hire more workers," he said.

The president is asking lawmakers to temporarily expand two government lending programs for the owners of small businesses.

"What I strongly urge is that we work quickly and that we work together to get this done.  America's small businesses are counting on us," he said.

Mr. Obama has also proposed sending $30 billion repaid by large banks to community banks for lending to small businesses.