Weaker-than-expected jobs numbers for March released Friday has put the White House on defense, and given presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans an opportunity to hammer U.S. President Barack Obama on his handling of the economy.

According to the Labor Department figures there were 121,000 new hires last month. This was the first report in five months showing job growth less than 200,000. The unemployment rate trickled down to 8.2 percent from 8.3 percent, as more Americans dropped out of the labor market.

The addition of more than 200,000 jobs a month had bolstered Obama's reelection prospects, diluting Romney's central message to voters: that he has the business savvy and experience to grow the economy. But the March numbers have given Republicans grist to get the presidential campaign back on a debate over the health of the economy.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and founder of venture capital firm Bain Capital, called the March report weak and very troubling.

Millions of Americans are paying a high price for President Obama's economic policies, and more and more people are growing so discouraged that they are dropping out of the labor force altogether, Romney said in a statement. It is increasingly clear the Obama economy is not working and that after three years in office the President's excuses have run out.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner piled on in a statement touting the Republican budget plan, which has become a blueprint for the party's policy platform in the 2012 elections.

Unfortunately, the president is refusing to get serious about addressing our fiscal and economic challenges, Boehner said. Republicans have a jobs plan -- and a budget -- that cuts spending, fixes our tax code, addresses excessive regulations and expands American energy production through projects like the Keystone XL pipeline.

'Volatile' Numbers

Obama and the White House said the jobs report shows the economy is trending in the right direction, even if there are ups and downs along the way.

We welcome today's news that our businesses created another 121,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate ticked down, Obama said at the White House Forum on Women and the Economy. But it's clear to every American that there will still be ups and downs along the way, and that we've got a lot more work to do.

One bright spot for the administration was the 37,000 manufacturing jobs added to the economy in March. The industry has become a central focus of the president's reelection campaign.

Other sectors that added jobs include hospitality, business services and financial activities, Labor Department data showed. The drag on the employment numbers came from the retail sector, which shed nearly 34,000 jobs last month; construction, which lost 7,000 jobs; and 1,000 jobs lost in the public sector.

There is more work to be done, but today's employment report provides further evidence that the economy is continuing to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, said Alan B. Krueger, chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers. As the Administration stresses every month, the monthly employment and unemployment figures can be volatile, and employment estimates can be subject to substantial revision. Therefore, it is important not to read too much into any one monthly report.