Restoring job growth and returning people to work is a top White House priority, President Obama said in a major speech yesterday.
"There are more than 7 million fewer Americans with jobs today than when this recession began," he said. "That's a staggering figure and one that reflects not only the depths of the hole from which we must ascend, but also a continuing human tragedy. And it speaks to an urgent need to accelerate growth in the short term while laying a new foundation for lasting economic growth."
Obama said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act he signed into law early this year prevented an even worse crisis by adding jobs at a critical time but, with joblessness at a quarter century high, more needs to be done to replace the millions of jobs lost as a result of the recession and of years of failed policies.
"Our work is far from done," the president declared, speaking at the Brookings Institution, a policy think tank. "For even though we have reduced the deluge of job losses to a relative trickle, we are not yet creating jobs at a pace to help all those families who have been swept up in the flood."
He proposed extending unemployment insurance and COBRA benefits for the jobless, incentives to homeowners for energy efficiency measures, incentives to small businesses to encourage hiring, use of remaining funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) for small business loans, aid to states and localities to help preserve services and jobs and boosting infrastructure projects including rail, water systems, broadband networks, clean energy projects and bridges.
Obama's proposals were formulated after a White House jobs summit last week.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who attended that summit, praised Obama's speech but left little doubt that the labor movement will continue to press for even bigger and bolder action on the jobs front. While there is considerable overlap between the president's plan and the federation's five-point jobs program, the AFL-CIO proposals go further than those enunciated thus far by the administration.
"I am encouraged that President Obama and his team are proposing many of the same steps that we see as the most promising, efficient routes to job creation," Trumka declared. "We'll be watching closely to see how Obama and Congress put these proposals into effect in the coming weeks and months."
While the president's plan borrows from the AFL-CIO plan in its call for use of remaining TARP funds for job creation, the AFL-CIO program includes additional major proposals. Among them are a call for a massive federally funded program to create jobs in communities, including restoration of environmental disasters, provision of child care and tutoring and cleaning up abandoned housing and properties, all separate from and in addition to currently existing public jobs.
Some in the labor movement have also called for re-creating the types of projects initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt in his New Deal of the 1930s. Thea Lee, the AFL-CIO's policy director, has been saying that even with tax breaks and other incentives business will be slow to create jobs because unemployment has left too many unable to buy the products that would be created. Her reasoning is that a New Deal type of program would create jobs immediately and thereby create the market for those products.
Nevertheless, progressives expressed support for the administration's focus on jobs.
Arlene-Holt-Baker, the AFL-CIO's executive vice president and the nation's highest-ranking African-American labor leader, said she was "glad to see President Obama focused on the urgent needs of families and communities hit by the jobs crisis. The president showed he understands the dire situation working people are struggling with in this economy, and he's going to fight hard to put people back to work and give working families and small businesses the help they need."
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said, "I was also pleased to hear the president's commitment to ensure that state and local governments get the help they need to save the jobs of workers who are providing essential services during this deep economic crisis."
Observers note that Obama's proposals are for practical initiatives that appear to reflect much more of the thinking of progressives in and out of his administration than they do the thinking of individuals like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and National Economic Council director Larry Summers, both of whom backed the notion that once things got better on Wall Street, everyone else would benefit.
The labor movement would also like to see the administration change policies it sees as helping to cause unemployment, rather than cure it.
Labor supports restructuring of the auto-industry bailout, for example, to prevent plant closures that are happening as part of that bailout. Others want new approaches to international trade that address both outsourcing of jobs and the country's gaping trade deficit.
Labor is backing what it sees as a progressive, job-creating, trade reform bill introduced this week in the Senate by Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown. The measure already has 125 supporters in the House.
"We want trade and we want more of it. But we need a new direction," said Brown, after he introduced the bill, the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act. "Done wrong, trade sends our jobs overseas. Done right, trade can foster new business and job growth at home, and can lift up workers in developing nations."
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