WASHINGTON — Under pressure from Republicans and a recession-weary public, President Barack Obama put the focus on jobs on Thursday by gathering local officials, economists, business and labor leaders at the White House to talk about putting people back to work.
The White House has lacked a unified economic message in recent weeks, with its attention focused instead on health care and Obama’s three-month review of the Afghanistan war. With unemployment in double digits for the first time since the early 1980s, Democratic lawmakers are suggesting a second economic stimulus aimed directly at job creation may be needed.
Ahead of Obama’s job forum, the leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Congress should use leftover money from Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, passed earlier this year, to pay for road, bridge and other public works projects and to help struggling state and local governments retain firefighters, police officers and teachers. She also promised help for small businesses.
About $140 billion in bailout money remains uncommitted and the administration has been wary of using it for other purposes. But Pelosi’s comments come after administration officials have privately softened that stance.
Meanwhile, Republicans staged a jobs event of their own as a counterpoint, inviting a group of mostly conservative economists to a round-table discussion with House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican, and other party leaders.
Administration officials are hoping Thursday’s jobs forum, an Obama trip to Pennsylvania on Friday and a major economic speech on Tuesday will help counter Republican critics who contend the administration’s economic recovery efforts have failed and its oversight of the $787 billion stimulus package has been inadequate.
At the jobs forum, Obama planned to defend his administration’s handling of the economy and argue that it would be in far worse shape had Congress not passed the huge stimulus bill earlier this year. Under intense Republican attacks, public support for the stimulus effort has faded.
“I certainly hope it’s more than a photo op,” said the No. 2 House Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor. “All of us want to do anything we can to get Americans back to work. Past history has been, with this White House, that there’s been a lot of pomp and ceremony with very little follow-through in terms of delivering results.”
Administration officials said they do not expect major policy announcements from the president, Vice President Joe Biden or members of the Cabinet who were scheduled to be on hand.
“Increasing employment is everyone’s responsibility, from government to businesses to households,” Obama economic adviser Larry Summers said in advance of the forum. “The White House jobs forum will take stock of where we are on the implementation of the Recovery Act and explore new job creation measures, including infrastructure investment, incentives for small businesses, developing our green economy and promoting U.S. exports.”
The nation’s unemployment rate is 10.2 percent, the highest since 1983. Some 15.7 million Americans are out of work. The average jobless worker has been unemployed for more than six months. These sobering statistics spell potentially serious trouble for Democrats in next November’s elections.
The recession technically may be over, but analysts say many of the jobs lost in the downturn probably will not return and high unemployment is likely to persist.