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President Obama goes for a reset on jobs

A plan in the works aims to give the economy a much-needed boost, and he'll have to confront Republicans head-on to get it passed.

August 19, 2011|By Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama visits the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha's Vineyard. While vacationing with his family, Obama is also working on a new jobs program expected to be introduced after Labor Day.
President Obama visits the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha's… (CJ Gunther, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — As a summer of severe political and economic tumult winds down, President Obama is in quiet consultations with advisors from his vacation compound in Martha's Vineyard, mapping out a jobs package that he hopes can boost a sluggish economy and win over voters who are coming to doubt his leadership.

Obama raised expectations during his Midwest bus tour this week that the jobs plan would mark a kind of reset for his presidency. He could use a fresh start: In a Gallup poll, public approval of Obama's handling of the economy fell to 26%, the lowest of his presidency.

Republicans bested him in the months-long fight over raising the debt ceiling by using the threat of economic catastrophe as a cudgel to rein in spending and reject any tax increases. World stock markets are reeling, and a new forecast by Morgan Stanley said the United States and Europe were "dangerously close" to lapsing back into recession.

Photos: Obama's bus tour

As his bus stopped in rural hamlets and towns, a feisty Obama issued an ultimatum to the GOP: Join him and pass a jobs plan or risk being viewed by the public as the party that only blocks, never compromises.

The question is whether the president can deliver. The administration's plan comes right from the Obama playbook: a high-stakes speech meant to give his political fortunes an instant jolt. Such tactics haven't worked of late. Obama's overall job approval rating dipped below 40% for the first time last week — higher than Congress' rating but below where a president up for reelection wants to be.

Republicans strengthened by last year's midterm elections remain determined to resist spending programs that Obama insists are needed to boost job growth and move the economy.

"Conservatives don't want everything to get better right now," said Allan Lichtman, an expert on the presidency at American University in Washington. "They want to hold out, elect Republicans to Congress and the White House and then solve things their way.... I can't imagine why conservatives in Congress would do anything to help the president right now."

Obama is getting some heat for waiting until September. For the next week, he'll be golfing, reading and swimming in a posh vacation spot. On Friday, his first full day on the island, Obama stopped at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, Mass., with his two daughters and later played golf.

White House advisors say there's little Obama could accomplish if he were holed up in the White House. Obama has suggested that members of Congress should get out of Washington during their August recess and reconnect with their constituents.

Obama, who at this point in his term has taken far fewer vacation days than President George W. Bush did, will bring one of his economic advisors, Brian Deese, to Martha's Vineyard next week for updates on the economy — something he didn't do during his trip last year. White House aides also stressed that the president is in constant touch with other economic aides by phone.

Yet prominent economists have called on Obama to cut the visit short.

"Frankly, I do think it's pretty odd the president's on vacation right now," Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist, said Friday on MSNBC. "Normally I wouldn't care about such things. But the world markets are in deep crisis. It's no joke. This isn't just an August up-and-down little blip. This is a very serious situation."

As Obama braces for the upcoming battle with the GOP over his jobs proposals, he appears ready for a more combative stance. Declaring that the government has to take action to improve the economy, the president has accused Republicans of putting their party before the country, and says he needs the public's help in demanding an end to partisan stalemates.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky reiterated what has been the GOP response, saying on Wednesday that "Washington needs to quit doing what it's been doing under this administration. Quit borrowing. Quit spending. Quit trying to raise taxes."

Obama's old jobs package was anything but sexy: changes to federal patent law, trade deals with small countries and renewal of existing tax breaks. Now his economic team is mulling over which options to include in a revamped approach intended to attract widespread public support — and to pressure Republicans to go along.

Among the possibilities: billions of dollars to refurbish dilapidated schools. "There's not one community in this country that doesn't need improvement right now," said John Ramsey, chief executive of the Council of Education Facility Planners, "and finding classrooms to showcase would be no problem for the president."

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