On Obama jobs tour, unemployed have little voice

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:02 PM

CLEVELAND - President Obama has traveled across the country since the November midterm elections to tout his economic vision and rebuild relationships with the business community, meeting with executives, community college presidents, students, venture capitalists, plant workers and others.

One group has been left out: the nearly one in 10 working-age Americans who are seeking a job but can't find one. In eight trips outside Washington since Election Day, Obama - who frequently says he uses such travel to better understand the lives of Americans - has held almost no formal meetings with groups of unemployed people or organizations that advocate for them.

White House officials were unable to give a single example of him on these trips interacting, even in private, with a person who had recently lost a job, although they emphasized that they don't know about every person with whom Obama has talked.

Instead, on a recent West Coast swing, the president met behind closed doors with a group of Silicon Valley executives, then headed to an Intel plant near Portland, Ore., to speak to workers there.

He met Tuesday with small-business owners and entrepreneurs at Cleveland State University. He called small businesses "the key to the future, because it's the new products, it's the new services, things that nobody else thought of before that are going to help absorb all the talented Americans out there who are looking for careers."

Said John Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University: "There has been an olive branch to the corporate community after the election. Where is the olive branch to the working-class community, the unions, the everyday folks? It's hard to imagine a Democratic president doing a jobs tour and not meeting with people who are out of work or [with] unions."

Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Greenlining Institute, a liberal-leaning policy institute in the San Francisco Bay Area, criticized Obama's visit to Silicon Valley, saying, "We're not disappointed he talked to CEOs, we're disappointed he only talked to CEOs."

White House officials defended the president's recent trips. They said he is meeting with groups and companies that are innovating and creating jobs.

And they said his commitment to the unemployed is easy to demonstrate. He has extended jobless benefits for up to 99 weeks to people in the states with the highest unemployment rates, pushed for the inclusion of $57 billion of those benefits in a December tax compromise with Republicans and put in his budget request a proposal to suspend interest for two years on money the federal government has loaned states to fund unemployment benefits.

And Obama has said he is not out of touch with people who are suffering, because he reads 10 letters from ordinary Americans each day.

"The president has not only aggressively advocated policies to support Americans fighting to find a job, but he is working to get businesses to hire and to invest in innovation and education so we can get the American people back to work and win the future," said Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman.

Some advocates for the unemployed defend Obama.

"The administration really has done a lot, especially on the safety-net side," said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director for the National Unemployment Law Project, a group that advocates for people who are out of work.

But Emsellem said he wishes Obama and Congress would look for more inventive ways to reduce unemployment instead of largely waiting for the private sector to act.

Powell and others said meeting with jobless people would help Obama better understand the problem. They argue that much of a president's job is symbolism, and that by making a series of trips to talk mostly to business leaders, he signals that they are a priority for his administration.

"People notice who the president is meeting with," said Powell, who was in the Portland area talking with African American leaders when Obama made his brief stop at Intel. "Everything the president does has implications, particularly the symbolism. People notice he is meeting with the elites."

Mitch Besser, a Portland area software engineer who lost his job last June, protested outside Intel when Obama visited, objecting to a trade agreement with South Korea the administration is trying to get through Congress.

He said he wished that he or another jobless tech worker could have met with the president.

"I would have liked him to know that the amount of education doesn't necessarily guarantee you a high-paying job," said Besser, who has a master's degree in software design and development. Being laid off has "been very difficult for my family," he said. "When he makes these statements about education being what will pull you out of it, it's very difficult to hear those statements."

But Stephen Spoonamore, who runs a reactive glass material company in the Cleveland area and attended Obama's forum, defended the president's focus on employers. "He is talking to companies like mine that are making jobs," he said.

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