Obama: Economy a ‘disaster’
WASHINGTON ” President Barack Obama seized onto the latest dreary economic numbers Friday as a “continuing disaster” for American families and further proof that more action is warranted on his economic recovery plan.
Obama said he was pleased that the House of Representatives acted with the appropriate urgency in approving a plan this week. And he said he sought to strengthen it further in the Senate, where he is hoping to get some Republican votes. No Republicans voted for the plan in the House.
The Democratic president doesn’t necessarily need Republican support for his $800 billion economic stimulus plan and other initiatives to clear the Democratic-controlled Congress, but he has said he wants to transcend the usual partisan Washington politics as the country faces two wars and its worst recession in 70 years.
“The recession is deepening, and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing,” Obama said. “So this is a difficult moment, but I believe, if we act boldly and swiftly, it can be an American moment when we work through our differences together and overcome our divisions to face this crisis.”
In an unusual move for a president, Obama met separately Tuesday with House and Senate Republicans in a visit to the Capitol’s two wings, and agreed to drop two items that had been aggravating Republicans: money to re-sod the National Mall in Washington and to expand family planning programs.
His comments came as the government reported more bad economic news Friday. The U.S. economy shrank at a 3.8 percent pace at the end of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century. The president told a White House gathering that the government can’t drag its feet or delay action much longer.
Obama also used the occasion at the White House to formally announce a new White House task force on the problems of middle-class Americans, and installed Vice President Joe Biden as its chairman.
In a move favorable to organized labor, the president signed three executive orders that union officials say will undo Bush administration policies that favored employers over workers.
Among the Bush-era executive orders that Obama was to reverse was one that allowed unionized companies to post signs informing workers that they are allowed to decertify their union. Critics claimed it was unfair because nonunion businesses are not required to post signs letting workers know they are legally allowed to vote for a union.
The orders Obama signed also will require federal contractors to offer jobs to current workers when contracts change, and prevent federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses meant to influence workers deciding whether to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.
“We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests,” Obama said before signing the executive orders during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
“I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it’s part of the solution,” he said, to a round of applause. “You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.”
Obama said the White House Task Force on Middle Class Working Families also would work to raise living standards and create opportunities for the poor, “because they, too, share our American dream.”
He said his administration wants to make sure low-income people “get a piece” of the American pie “if they’re willing to work for it.”
The president and vice president said the task force includes Cabinet departments whose work has the most influence on the well-being of the country’s middle class, including the departments of education, commerce, health and human services and labor.
“With this we have a single, highly visible group with one single goal: to raise the living standards of the people who are the backbone of this country,” Biden said.
He pledged that the task force will conduct its business in the open, and announced a Web site, http://www.astrongmiddleclass.gov, for the public to get information. He also announced that the panel’s first meeting will be Feb. 27 in Philadelphia and will focus on environmental or “green jobs.”
Labor leaders also visited the White House on Thursday, where Obama welcomed them to the East Room as he signed his first major piece of legislation, an equal-pay act that organized labor and women’s groups championed.
On Thursday, Obama lashed out at Wall Street, saying it was shameful that employees were paid more than $18 billion in bonuses while their crumbling financial sector received a historic bailout from U.S. taxpayers.
Obama was responding to reports Thursday that Wall Street executives were paid billions in bonuses last year as Congress poured hundreds of billions into the financial system to address an economy reeling from souring debt, defaulting mortgages and choked lending.
With new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at his side, the president said the payouts were “the height of irresponsibility.”
“It is shameful,” Obama said. “And part of what we’re going to need is for the folks on Wall Street who are asking for help to show some restraint, and show some discipline, and show some sense of responsibility.”