The economic recovery is admittedly shaky, and House Republicans appear eager to make matters worse, but right now, there’s growing cause for optimism.

The number of Americans filing initial claims for regular state unemployment-insurance benefits fell 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 364,000 in the week ended Dec. 17, reaching the lowest level since April 2008, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had expected that claims would rise to 375,000, while remaining at levels historically associated with an improving labor market. The four-week average of initial claims — a smoother gauge than the weekly data — fell 8,000 to 380,250, the lowest level since June 2008.

It’s generally wise to avoid sweeping conclusions about week-to-week changes in data like this, but when these jobless claims fall below the 400,000 threshold, it’s evidence of an improving jobs landscape. When the number drops below 370,000, it suggests jobs are actually being created rather quickly.

Indeed, the fact that the figures are now at a level unseen in more than three-and-a-half years is clearly encouraging news. We’re working our way out of data that’s encouraging relative to where we were, and into data that’s encouraging in its own right.

And with that, here’s the new homemade chart, showing weekly, initial unemployment claims going back to the beginning of 2007. (Remember, unlike the monthly jobs chart, a lower number is good news.) For context, I’ve added an arrow to show the point at which President Obama’s Recovery Act began spending money. And by popular demand, I’ve also added an x-axis, marking the years reflected in the image.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.