President Obama hears from participants during the conference in the Eisenhower… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — Eager to show he isn't neglecting the recession, President Obama hosted a jobs summit Thursday, soliciting ideas from scores of business and labor leaders on how to reverse an economic downturn that has sent the unemployment rate to its worst level in a generation.
The event at the White House was held on the eve of a new government report expected to show that more than 120,000 jobs were lost in November, with unemployment still hovering above 10%.
Having spent weeks developing a new Afghanistan war strategy and pushing a healthcare bill, Obama wanted to demonstrate that he has not lost sight of the jobs issue.
He will appear today in Allentown, Pa., to talk more about his plans for job growth. And on Tuesday he will deliver a speech on the subject at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Not to be outflanked, the Republicans held a dueling jobs conference with their own economic experts. Republicans blamed the grim jobs picture on Obama's policies. They contend the administration's $787-billion stimulus package has failed and warn that passage of the healthcare overhaul will undermine conditions for economic progress.
What's more, they say they were snubbed. U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner, the House Republican minority leader, said he didn't get an invitation to the Obama summit.
At a news conference, Boehner said: "The biggest problem that we heard from our economists with regard to why employers aren't hiring is all the job-killing policies that are being offered by this administration and this Congress, and creating an awful lot of uncertainty for American employers."
After an introductory session, those invited to Obama's conference broke up into work groups to trade ideas. At one meeting devoted to road and bridge projects, the president unexpectedly came in and sat down with participants.
Elbows on the table, hands clasped in front of him, Obama was confronted by Doug Holtz-Eakin, an economic advisor to Obama's Republican opponent in the 2008 campaign, John McCain. Holtz-Eakin contended that infrastructure projects are better suited for long-term economic goals and are not a good use of money meant to give the economy a quick jolt.
Obama agreed with parts of the argument. Though proponents of road projects often portray them as "shovel-ready" -- meaning they will produce jobs right away -- Obama said he has found that is not always the case. "The term 'shovel-ready' -- let's be honest here -- doesn't always live up to its billing," he said.
Obama said that infrastructure projects need to be truly shovel-ready if Americans are going to believe they are an immediate source of jobs.
"Because without the American people seeing this translating into job growth right now, it's hard to get them to be interested in what's happening two years down the road," he said.
Asked about the remarkable degree of infrastructure spending in China, the president conceded that it was "pretty remarkable." But Obama, who visited China last month, offered a reason.
"The Chinese don't have this thing called democracy that we have to deal with. So shoveling out a whole lot of money, tearing down whatever is there, conscripting folks to do the work is not as tough."
Speaking to the participants afterward, Obama fielded a question about whether his own ambitious priorities are making matters worse. Apart from healthcare, Obama wants to impose new financial regulations that will shore up the nation's banks.
With complex policies being hashed out on tight deadlines, it is difficult for businesspeople to plan, one participant said.
Fred Lampropoulos, president of a medical device company in Utah, said: "One of the overriding thoughts in our forum was that there's uncertainty that there's such an aggressive legislative agenda that businesspeople don't really know what they ought to do."
Obama said that at the outset of his term, he rejected the idea of a modest legislative agenda. Postponing action on festering problems would leave the country in a weaker position, he said.
"Having said that, my strong hope is, is that we get healthcare done by the end of this year," Obama said. "That eliminates some uncertainty because people will have a sense of what's going to be happening in the healthcare field."
If financial regulatory reform is complete by the end of the year or early next year, he added, banks would have some certainty. "And that, to the extent that the uncertainty is derived from these major legislative initiatives, I think will be solved in the next few months."