DURHAM, N.C. — President Barack Obama said Monday that Washington’s current preoccupation with the deficit and debt is really all about job creation, as he sought to assure the public that whatever abstract debate they’re hearing, he’s focused on their top economic concern heading into his re-election campaign.
Meeting with a group of business leaders in politically important North Carolina on the day of the first major GOP presidential debate, Obama heard concerns about everything from difficulty getting small business loans to regulatory burdens on airlines. He pledged to do everything he could to help businesses as his administration aims to breathe life into the faltering economic recovery.
At the same time, as Washington faces an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the government’s borrowing limit or go into unprecedented default, Obama tried to make real for people what’s at stake. He argued for smart decisions on what to cut and how — sending a message to Republicans who say they won’t agree to raise the debt limit unless Obama and Democrats agree to enormous spending cuts and no tax increases at all.
“The thing I want to emphasize is that we need to solve our medium- and long-term debt and deficit issues not for abstract reasons, but because they are a concrete impediment to growth and jobs,” Obama said during the meeting at a clean energy plant in Durham.
“So the American people need to know that over the next month, as we focus on making sure that we have a balanced thoughtful resolution to this problem, this isn’t to the exclusion of worrying about jobs,” he said, “but is actually in service of making sure businesses have enough confidence about the investment environment so that they can start getting off the sidelines and putting more money to work and hiring more people.”
Obama is looking for ways to brighten a bleak employment picture, pushing private-sector hiring along with his own political fortunes during a two-day trip to two key states — North Carolina and Florida — and a rendezvous with an important Hispanic constituency on the island of Puerto Rico.
The trip gives him a chance to offer a counterpoint to what is sure to be a sustained attack on his economic and other policies during the nationally televised GOP debate.
Republicans shrugged off Obama’s efforts.
“Each of these events is a fresh reminder of the president’s failure to deliver the job creation he promised,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Photo-ops with business leaders only reinforce that no one in this administration has ideas to create the private sector jobs our economy desperately needs.”
Before meeting with his jobs council at Cree, Inc., Obama toured a portion of the plant where LED lights are assembled. He met Josephine Lynch, a 43-year-old mother of four who landed the job two months ago after nearly three year of unemployment. She was a substitute teacher in New Jersey before losing her job. She then went back to school to get her electronics certification.
Obama hopes millions of unemployed workers will follow Lynch’s example by going back to school to get training for jobs in new industries, such as clean energy.
In the meeting, Obama said the economy had made “great strides” from where it stood in 2008. But he said that even though jobs were being created they weren’t being created fast enough.
“We do have some challenges and these challenges predated the financial crisis that we had,” Obama said, seeming to blame the current state of the economy on factors before he took office and recent events outside his control, including a jump in gasoline prices and the fiscal situation in Greece.
“Job growth was slow even when the economy was growing at a pretty good clip,” he said at the meeting, which was broadcast on the White House website.
He said May’s unemployment report “showed that job creation has not moved as quickly as we’d like.” Job growth slowed sharply in May, with the private sector adding just 54,000 jobs.
In an opinion piece published Monday in The Wall Street Journal, General Electric chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt and American Express CEO and chairman Ken Chennault laid out a series of jobs council ideas to increase employment, including easing visa applications to attract more tourists and increasing energy efficiency in commercial buildings. Immelt heads the president’s jobs and competitiveness council.
An independent analysis of the energy-efficiency proposal concluded that it could create more than 114,000 new jobs, many in construction. The study was conducted by The Real Estate Roundtable, the U.S. Green Building Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In their piece, Immelt and Chennault also called for improved worker training, cutting red tape to make it easier for contractors to obtain permits and for small businesses to secure government-backed loans.
“America needs more growth,” the executives wrote. “The United States needs to reverse trends that developed over a long period of time, and the solutions aren’t easy politically, socially or economically.”
Top White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said many of the council’s proposals can be undertaken without taxpayer funds or congressional action. “We wanted to look at ways where the private sector could really carry the ball and create this long-term sustainable growth,” she said.
Obama’s options are limited after spending about $800 billion in 2009 on an economic stimulus program. The administration and Congress are now focused on cutting long-term spending, the price for increasing the government’s borrowing authority. The government says it will exceed its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling on Aug. 2.
By unveiling his jobs council proposals in North Carolina, Obama chose a state with the 10th highest unemployment rate in the country and where he won his narrowest victory in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Ferrell Guillory, an expert on southern politics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, sees a divided South, with many Atlantic Seaboard states like Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida benefiting from an economic transition into service industries, technology and biological manufacturing.
“These more robust states have become more competitive for Democrats,” he said. “That’s the new phenomenon that Obama caught more than the Republicans.”
While Obama won North Carolina in 2008, Republican Sen. Richard Burr handily won re-election in 2010. Paul Shumaker, a consultant and adviser to Burr, said Republicans would be mistaken to think that meant 2010 represented a shift in North Carolina.
The biggest growth in registered voters in the state is among independents. Shumaker said research shows that 70 percent of those voters are true uncommitted voters, with two-thirds of the remaining 30 percent leaning to Democrats.