As Obama opens jobs summit, he faces limited options for growth

By Michael A. Fletcher and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 2009

Creating jobs is a political and economic imperative for President Obama, who is holding a high-profile jobs summit Thursday that aides hope will demonstrate his concern for the plight of everyday Americans.

Obama has summoned 130 corporate executives, economists, small-business owners and union leaders to the White House to sound out ideas for accelerating job growth during the worst labor market in a generation.

"The main thing that people are concerned about is jobs," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). "It is the number one issue."

But Obama's options are limited, as the administration already has signaled that it is unwilling to make any investments that would add significantly to the nation's ballooning deficit.

"We want to make sure it is not just the public sector doing this in a vacuum," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama. "It's important we engage the private sector as well." Administration officials, however, have excluded major trade associations from the summit, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represent many of the country's largest employers.

Some of those groups privately complain that their job creation ideas, including enactment of stalled free trade deals that they say would boost exports, are opposed by labor unions, which will be heavily represented at the forum.

The White House, which has clashed with some of the business groups over their opposition to health-care reform and other initiatives, says it has met repeatedly with those organizations and wants to hear fresh ideas.

It is far from clear that Obama will embrace all the ideas being promoted by his supporters in organized labor, who are making calls for direct funding of federal public works jobs, another round of aid to cash-strapped states and cities, and funding for infrastructure projects.

Taken together, those initiatives could cost hundreds of billions of dollars -- a tab Obama seems unwilling to shoulder. The White House has been warmer to ideas to use federal money to leverage private investments. One, dubbed "cash for caulkers," would offer federal subsidies to people who weatherize their homes. The administration has also expressed interest in expanding financing for export-related businesses, and fast-tracking infrastructure spending.

With the nation's unemployment rate at 10.2 percent and rising, many congressional Democrats want Obama to do more to directly help people they say perceive the president's economic initiatives as mostly benefiting big business. "What's a bit ironic to me is they were able to figure out how to help the big banks without any summit, but now that they are talking about helping people, it is a year later and they need a summit," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), co-chairman of the bipartisan Jobs Now! Caucus, which has at least 128 members. "What is that all about?"

On Wednesday, 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus boycotted a House committee markup of a financial regulatory reform bill, a key Obama priority, to protest the administration not doing more to aid minority communities and businesses that are hurting economically.

"We have not been forceful enough in our efforts to protect the most vulnerable of our population. That stops today," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the leader of the boycotting members, who added: "I'd like to see a jobs bill yesterday."

But while Democrats are in broad agreement that a jobs bill is needed, they display little consensus about what should be in it or how -- or whether -- to pay for it.

"We are going to see a lot of action from the Senate and the House on jobs regardless of what the White House is saying," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "After all, it is their political necks on the line."

Some of the business people invited to take part in the meeting want the administration to take further steps to unlock financing for small businesses and to secure health-care and climate change policies that would give businesses greater certainty to plan into the future.

Peter Y. Solmssen, interim U.S. chief executive of Siemens Corp., a German conglomerate, said fixed policies would help businesses, large and small. "We both need a certain amount of certainty, which gives us the opportunity and capability to plan," he said.

Staff writer V. Dion Haynes contributed to this report.

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