Amid Skepticism, Obama Prepares For Jobs Speech

Sep 7, 2011
Originally published on September 8, 2011 9:53 am

President Obama will attempt a Hail Mary pass when he speaks to a joint session of Congress tonight. He'll be asking for immediate help to boost job growth, after a month in which U.S. hiring came to a virtual standstill.

"The time for action is now," Obama told supporters in Detroit earlier this week. "Now is not the time for the people you sent to Washington to worry about their jobs. Now is the time for them to worry about your jobs."

The president's own job approval rating took a beating after the protracted battle over raising the government's debt ceiling. Consumer confidence also fell last month, along with the government's credit rating.

The president's jobs proposal is expected to include a combination of new and extended tax cuts, new spending on public works projects, and assistance for those who've been out of work a long time.

"What will be very clear is that it would have a meaningful impact on creating jobs over the next 12 to 18 months," said Gene Sperling, director of the president's National Economic Council.

Obama will try to paint congressional opponents of the package as indifferent to the nation's economic suffering. But he's still dogged by the controversy that surrounds his early stimulus effort.

"Many argue that it kept the recession from getting worse," said political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College. "But the perception among many people in the general public is that it didn't have the kind of effect that the president advertised. A lot of people will be listening to this speech and saying, 'You tried this before. It didn't work then. Why would it work now?'"

To be fair, the economy did start growing soon after the stimulus kicked in, and the recent slowdown in hiring came after most of the stimulus was exhausted. Still the White House has made little headway with that argument. And for much of the last year, promoting jobs took a backseat, as official Washington focused on cutting the deficit.

"I think the president and Congress just spent, maybe wasted, a couple of months arguing about the debt ceiling and deficit reduction and talking pretty far past most of the American public," said Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Biden, who's now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Let's talk about the importance of jobs first, and then talk about the medium-term imperative of getting on a sustainable budget path."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

If you believe the Federal Reserve chairman, the long-term prospects for the U.S. economy are still good.

The question President Obama faces tonight is how to get employers hiring more quickly in the short term, that is to say now.

INSKEEP: It's a key economic question and also a key political question, since the president and most of the members of Congress he will address face reelection campaigns a little more than a year from now. White House officials have been asking what could help the economy and also what might pass Congress in a bitterly partisan year.

We start our coverage with NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama hopes to create a new sense of urgency with his speech tonight. Months of slow job growth have turned to no job growth, while the government was preoccupied with spending cuts. With unemployment stuck above nine percent, Mr. Obama told supporters this week Americans can't wait on Washington any longer.

President BARACK OBAMA: The time for action is now.

(Soundbite of cheering)

President OBAMA: No more manufactured crises. No more games. Now is not the time for the people you sent to Washington to worry about their jobs. Now is the time for them to worry about your jobs.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: Certainly Americans are worried. Consumer confidence fell sharply last month, along with confidence in the president's economic stewardship. Mr. Obama will try to turn that around tonight. But political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says it won't be easy.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): The stakes are high and the chips are of dubious value. The president knows that he's going to have a very difficult time getting his plan through Congress and even if it does get through Congress, there's no guarantee it will have the kind of effect that he's hoping for.

HORSLEY: The White House has been careful not to promise any particular payoff from the president's jobs proposal. But economic advisor Gene Sperling says the plan is designed to include strong, fast-acting medicine.

Mr. GENE SPERLING (Presidential Advisor): What will be very clear is that it would have a meaningful impact on creating jobs over the next 12 to 18 months.

HORSLEY: The plan is expected to include a combination of new and extended tax cuts, new spending on public works projects, and assistance for those who've been out of work a long time. The White House will try to paint Congressional opponents of the package as indifferent to the nation's economic suffering. But Pitney says the Administration is still dogged by the controversy that surrounds its early stimulus effort.

Mr. PITNEY: Many argue that it kept the recession from getting even worse, kept the unemployment rate from going even higher. But the perception among many people in the general public is that it didn't have the kind of effect that the president advertised. A lot of people will be listening to this speech and saying, you tried this before. It didn't work then. Why would it work now?

HORSLEY: To be fair, the economy did start growing soon after the stimulus kicked in, and the recent slowdown in hiring came after most of the stimulus was exhausted. Still, the White House has made little headway with that argument. And former administration economist Jared Bernstein, who's now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says for much of the last year promoting jobs took a back seat as official Washington focused on cutting the deficit.

Mr. JARED BERNSTEIN (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): The president and Congress just spent, maybe wasted, a couple of months arguing about the debt ceiling and deficit reduction and talking pretty far past most of the American public. So it's important for him to kind of reverse the order. Let's talk about the importance of jobs first and then talk about the medium-term imperative of getting on a sustainable budget path.

HORSLEY: Even now, many Republicans insist that tax cuts or additional spending aimed at job creation must be offset elsewhere in the budget to avoid adding to the deficit. White House advisor Sperling says the president's jobs proposals will be paid for, but not necessarily in the next couple of years.

Mr. SPERLING: His overall goal for our economy is to create the long-term certainty and confidence that we have our fiscal house in order. But he's also going to make clear that it's going to be very difficult to accomplish any of those goals if we can't get people back to work, get businesses hiring and investing in America again.

HORSLEY: The administration says it can take some actions to boost hiring on its own, but most will require cooperation from Congress. And lately here in Washington, cooperation has been in short supply.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.