Obama Gets Some Good News on Economy, Terror Fight

Employers sharply scaled back layoffs in July, and the unemployment rate dipped for the first time in 15 months, sending a strong signal that the worst recession since World War II is finally ending. Video by AP
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009; 6:47 PM

President Obama has encountered strong headwinds in his seven months in office, with the nation's unemployment rate undermining support for his economic vision, Republicans questioning his resolve to battle terrorists, and his plans for health-care reform facing skepticism in Congress and across the nation.

But the president scored a welcome break in that creeping narrative Friday, as the nation's unemployment rate dipped for the first time in 15 months and word came that a CIA-launched missile had apparently killed a terrorist leader in Pakistan.

The twin successes, however fleeting they prove to be, come at a fortuitous moment for the White House, which has been stepping up the defense of its economic and anti-terrorism policies in the face of unrelenting Republican criticism. Polls show that the GOP's doubts are beginning to take hold among the public, with support for both Obama and his policies eroded.

The news that the unemployment rate had dropped slightly -- from 9.5 percent to 9.4 percent -- even as the economy shed nearly a quarter-million jobs in July, was greeted by Obama as the latest sign that the deep recession that has gripped the nation since 2007 is beginning to ease.

"We're pointed in the right direction. We're losing jobs at less than half the rate we were when I took office," Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden. "We've pulled the financial system back from the brink, and a rising market is restoring value to those 401(k)s that are the foundation of a secure retirement."

The White House was quick to point out that the unemployment rate is still projected to rise in the coming months, while arguing that the $787 billion economic stimulus plan would both limit the recession's damage and fuel a stronger recovery.

Meanwhile, Republicans said the unemployment numbers do not vindicate the stimulus spending. "No one would argue that the stimulus has done nothing," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was a leading economic adviser for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his presidential campaign. "But it certainly doesn't look like we're getting our money's worth."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that, although the White House could not confirm whether Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a missile strike in Pakistan, "there seems to be a growing consensus among credible observers" that he is indeed dead. "If he is dead, without a doubt, the people of Pakistan will be safer as a result," Gibbs said.

News of the missile strike emerged one day after Obama's top anti-terrorism official, John O. Brennan, delivered a robust defense of the administration's approach to battling terrorist groups.

Addressing an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan criticized the U.S. anti-terror approach under President George W. Bush, saying that the United States must also work to expand economic and educational opportunities across the Muslim world to discourage people from joining terrorist organizations.

At the same time, he said, Obama embraces the use of force when necessary.

"We have presented President Obama with a number of actions and initiatives against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups," Brennan said. "Not only has he approved these operations, he has encouraged us to be even more aggressive, even more proactive and even more innovative, to seek out new ways and new opportunities for taking down these terrorists before they can kill more innocent men, women and children."

William A. Galston, who served as an aide to President Bill Clinton, said that a tiny decline in the unemployment rate or the death of one terrorist leader may be good news, but that it should not be inflated.

"Things are rarely as bad as they look or as good as they look," he said. "It is important to keep that in mind and also not to overstate the significance of a particular event on a particular day. Everybody is pleased the rate of job loss is slowing, but it is still a significant loss. And it is important not to overstate the importance of any one leader. These sorts of terrorist organizations are usually like the Hydra. You cut off one head and there usually are others."

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