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Jobs, energy key to Obama stimulus plan

Recovery agenda is said to emphasize green infrastructure and health technology.

December 06, 2008|Peter Nicholas and Janet Hook | Nicholas and Hook are writers in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama is crafting a financial stimulus plan far more ambitious than a quick cash infusion, viewing it as a way to create jobs in a struggling economy and push the nation toward improved healthcare and roads and clean energy.

In hopes of attracting a share of the billions of dollars in stimulus money, special interests and industry representatives have been meeting with the Obama team and recasting their proposals for federal funding as engines of economic recovery.

In private discussions with Obama's transition aides, interest groups are hearing that the president-elect wants proposals that could employ people right away.

Congressional leaders say a stimulus plan could cost $400 billion to $700 billion -- figures the Obama team does not dispute. Those numbers dwarf anything the House had been considering before Obama's victory. In recent years, federal stimulus packages sometimes amounted to giving Americans checks, with a goal of stoking consumer spending.

But Obama hopes to launch a stimulus program that helps drive the agenda of his presidency: improving the nation's power grid in ways that reduce carbon emissions and cut energy costs, shoring up roads, bridges and tunnels, and computerizing medical records so that doctors have up-to-date information on patients.

Such health information-technology initiatives enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, though disagreement over guaranteeing the privacy of patient records has proved to be an obstacle in the past.

The recession has propelled a stimulus package to the top of Obama's agenda. The government reported Friday that the U.S. economy lost 533,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate climbed to 6.7%, its highest level in 15 years.

Obama has said he wants a stimulus bill passed as soon as possible. But an aide said Friday that, because of the broad scope of the president-elect's plans, waiting until the new Congress convenes next month might be more realistic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has said she hopes to land a bill on Obama's desk soon after his Jan. 20 inauguration.

But the Obama team is not expecting to reverse the nation's job losses during his first year in office. The recession is so severe that the economy probably will shed jobs in 2009 even with a stimulus in place, his aide said. Any turnaround might not come until 2010.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly, the aide said: "Given the magnitude of the problems, you're going to need a large plan. Much of what we would do is double duty, with the effect of helping aggregate demand today but also enhancing the productivity of the economy for years and decades to come.

"So a lot of what this entails is taking a look at the priorities he set and the ideas he talked about during the campaign and asking, which of these can very naturally be done over a short time horizon?" the aide said. "Green jobs, healthcare technology and infrastructure fit that."

In recent weeks, Obama aides have been privately consulting a range of interest groups about economic recovery ideas.

Aides to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger met with John Podesta, who is helping manage Obama's transition, and Jason Furman, an Obama economic advisor, to make the case for more spending on roads, ports and other projects.

Schwarzenegger's office estimates that it could initiate $28 billion worth of infrastructure projects within four months -- meeting Obama's objective of reducing unemployment while improving California's aging transportation network.

David Crane, a Schwarzenegger advisor who attended the meeting, reported a positive reception from the Obama team.

"We wanted to ensure they were aware that infrastructure investment could be done in a meritorious way, that billions' worth of projects are ready to go . . . and that infrastructure investment could be deeply stimulative to employment," Crane said. "Equipment could be ordered and shovels could be in the ground virtually immediately. They were talking about the same concepts."

Environmentalists met with Obama transition aides two weeks ago and laid out a series of long-term projects that included building new power transmission lines. But the Obama team, led by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, made it clear that speed was a crucial consideration. Obama aides urged the environmentalists to draw up a set of job-creation plans that could be put in place more quickly.

The group responded by submitting a list of dozens of projects that could begin in as little as one month.

"They actively and avidly have been thinking about good ideas for environment-enhancing job programs that are ready to go," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, who attended the meeting. "Carol Browner brought it up and said, 'We need ideas. This is the first thing we have to put together because this is the first thing the president-elect plans to do.' "

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