By CHARLES BABINGTON and JENNIFER LOVEN
WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama is shifting his administration’s emphasis to battling unemployment, the scourge that is hurting households across the US and threatening to inflict heavy losses on Democrats in November’s national election.
In the process, he and his allies in Congress intend to force Republicans, through a series of upcoming votes, to choose between Wall Street’s high fliers and middle-class workers.
With Democrats struggling to deliver on big promises such as overhauling health care, they hope their increasingly populist tone – coupled with Republican resistance to two Democratic-crafted, deficit-reduction proposals – will prevent wavering voters from drifting to the Republicans.
The White House has pushed a job-creation agenda for months. But it wasn’t supposed to be the top priority until Democrats achieved their much-touted healthcare revisions.
That trouble-plagued campaign still drags on, however, leaving Obama little choice but to make it clear that creating jobs is his chief concern.
The shift in focus is not necessarily a death knell for the healthcare push. House and Senate Democratic leaders are trying to persuade colleagues to pass the contentious package despite fierce Republican opposition and polls that show substantial public dislike.
For now, at least, the legislative leaders seem content for Obama to remain fairly quiet while they work behind closed doors. If they can move the healthcare package close to the finish line in the next few weeks, they may call on him to buttonhole enough lawmakers for a final push.
That gives Obama leeway to focus heavily on trying to whittle down the nation’s 10 % unemployment rate.
In Wednesday’s State of the Union address, he declared, “Jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010.” On Friday he rolled out details of a US$33 billion (K84 billion), one-year tax incentive plan to encourage more hiring.
Underscoring the administration’s concern, Obama’s top economic adviser said on Saturday that while the US economy is recovering, job losses remain painfully high.
“What we’re seeing in the United States, and perhaps in some other places, is a statistical recovery and a human recession,” Lawrence Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council, told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod said in an interview that the administration also hopes Congress will approve a new stimulus bill in the next couple of weeks. The other most immediate priorities, he said, are votes on a bailout fee on big banks and a financial reform package, including a new consumer finance agency.
Congressional Republicans have opposed these and other proposals, saying Obama wants to slap stifling regulations on the still-struggling US financial sector.
Some Democrats view the Republican stance as a policy and political miscalculation.
White House officials and Democratic lawmakers described a strategy to put Republicans on the spot by scheduling regular votes on jobs, financial regulation and other matters that fall in line with the Democrats’ populist message.
The strategy is meant to put Republicans in a box. They can vote with Democrats on items such as imposing a fee on big banks that received public bailout money. Or they can oppose such measures and risk being painted as protectors of big banks and stock traders rather than working-class Americans.
Many congressional Republicans, riding high after their stunning victory in the Jan 19 Massachusetts Senate race to fill the seat held for decades by the late Edward M Kennedy, think the Democrats’ strategy won’t work. They appear almost united in their willingness to oppose Democrats on numerous measures that arguably might appeal to the public, calling them irresponsible, unworkable or overly intrusive.
Senate Republicans recently helped kill a proposed bipartisan commission meant to reduce the deficit, even though some originally had embraced it.
They also unanimously opposed an increase in the allowable level of federal borrowing. The measure, which Democrats passed on a party-line vote, includes requirements that the government pay up front for many new programmes rather than finance them through borrowing. Republicans say the pay-as-you-go plan encourages higher taxes. – Associated Press