President Barack Obama kicked off a White House jobs forum on Thursday by saying he's “open to every demonstrably good idea” to reverse the worst job losses in decades. But Obama said the government's resources are limited and that growth ultimately must come from the private sector.
“So we can't make any ill-considered decisions right now even with the best of intentions,” he said. “We have to be surgical and we're going to have to be creative.” Obama appealed to his audience of academics, business and union leaders and local officials to help him find “the biggest bang for the buck.”
Obama said chronic unemployment is “a struggle that cuts deep and touches people across the nation.”
Seeking to set a can-do tone, he claimed progress has been made toward an economic recovery since the depths of the recession last winter, while saying much more work needs to be done.
Obama said the leading question of the day is “how do we get businesses to start hiring again” and asked his guests to “bring their A-game.”
He spoke a day ahead of the release of government figures on unemployment. The jobless rate now is 10.2 percent, the highest since the early 1980s, and most economists believe Friday's report will show it still above 10 percent, perhaps still rising.
Earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested that one way to create jobs is to use leftover money from the Wall Street bailout to pay for new spending on roads and bridges and save the jobs of firefighters, teachers and other public employees.
Republicans staged their own jobs forum across town, inviting a team of mostly conservative economists to a round-table discussion.
“I don't think there is a moment to lose. I think we have to move aggressively toward policies that actually promote jobs. And so far what's been tried hasn't worked very well,” said Lawrence Lindsey, a top economic adviser early in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office who had been 2008 GOP Republican nominee Sen. John McCain's chief economic adviser, said that the single best thing Obama could do to create jobs was “to reverse course on a dangerous agenda of debt-financed spending, crippling regulation, expensive mandates, and intrusive government expansion.”
Obama told his audience: “I'll be looking for some good answers.”
“Let me be clear, I am open to every demonstrably good idea. And I want to take every responsible step to accelerate job creation. We also though have to face the fact that our resources are limited,” Obama said.
After his opening remarks, the group broke into smaller study groups. Obama planned to address the entire group again at day's end.
The president acknowledged there was considerable skepticism about government's ability to overcome the employment challenge and even over whether “any discussion like this can produce results.”
But he said he thinks skepticism can be healthy and “I am confident that we will make progress.”
Perhaps unwittingly, Vice President Joe Biden took the event a bit off-message at the start, painting a more dire picture of the nation's economy than typically heard out of the administration.
At the opening session, Biden recalled an old Ronald Reagan line that people see the problem as a merely downturn when a stranger is out of work and a recession if it's a relative who is unemployed — but a full-blown depression when they themselves lose a job.
“And it is a depression” for the nation's 10 million unemployed, Biden added.
“Our task together is obviously not an easy one,” Biden said. And while the $787 billion stimulus package had helped kick-start the process, “the government's capacity is still somewhat limited.”
Administration officials hope the jobs forum, followed by an Obama trip to hard-hit Allentown, Pa., on Friday and a major economic speech on Tuesday will help counter GOP critics who contend the administration's economic recovery efforts have failed and its oversight of the $787 billion stimulus package has been inadequate.
Administration officials said they don't expect major policy announcements from the forum.
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.