Reporting from Alexandria, Va., and Washington — President Obama traveled to vote-rich northern Virginia to sign legislation overhauling the nation's patent laws, a step he's long touted as a common-sense step to boost the economy and one that he sought to link Friday with his pitch for his new jobs plan.
Overhauling the nation's creaky patent system isn't a step that economists believe will solve the jobs crisis. But in a gridlocked capital where inaction is the norm, speeding up the patent process was one of very few things both parties seemed willing to do.
Applying for a patent is now a bureaucratic slog: The patent office has a backlog of 689,000 applications and approval of a new patent takes nearly three years. The law is an effort to streamline the process and spur entrepreneurs to develop products more quickly.
"We've got a lot of competition out there. And if we make it too hard for people with good ideas to attract investment and get them to market, then countries like China are going to beat us at it and beat us to it," Obama said in remarks before signing the legislation at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va.
The new law would change the system by awarding patents to the first person to submit an application – not to the original inventor. Proponents hope this step will cut down on lawsuits and thus make patent approval more timely.
Though business interests welcome the overhaul, the new law isn’t likely to unleash a wave of new hiring. The economic effect might be years down the road, economists say.
"I don’t think this means a lot of jobs next year, but it may mean a meaningful number of jobs over the next decade or two," said Mark Zandi, an economist who has advised the White House.
Some analysts have questioned Obama's inclusion of patent reform in his larger job creation agenda. In a bus tour over the summer, Obama cast the legislation as one of the steps Congress could take right away that would boost the economy.
"The bottom line is, if you are unemployed, if you are under-employed or if you are a member of the communities of color that are suffering unemployment rates of (up to) 50%, hearing something about patent reform is a cruel joke. It will do absolutely nothing to alleviate the pain that these are communities are feeling right now," said Michelle Bernard, president of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy.
But Obama argued the legislation, along with his American Jobs Act, are "connected."
"This change in our patent laws is part of our agenda for making us competitive over the long term. But we've also got a short-term economic crisis," he said. "What the American Jobs Act does is it puts more people back to work and it puts more money into the pockets of working Americans."
The event came as the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that 26 states saw their unemployment rates rise in the month of August, while only 12 recorded decreases.
After his recent focus on the domestic economy, the president is set to travel to New York next week for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.