Jobs Data Cast Pall Over Obama's Upcoming Speech

Friday's dismal jobs report raises the stakes for President Obama as he prepares to unveil a new jobs plan next week. So far, Republicans in Congress have shown little interest in the president's proposals. And the economic slowdown suggests that political gridlock has a growing price tag.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Also next week, President Obama will roll out his new jobs plan, and the stakes are higher than ever. The Labor Department said today the U.S. added no new jobs in the month of August. Some 14 million people are still out of work, and the unemployment rate remains stuck above 9 percent. NPR's Scott Horsley reports now on the obstacles the president faces in trying to turn those numbers around.

SCOTT HORSLEY: After sputtering for much of the spring and summer, job growth ground to a halt in August. So far, that economic stagnation has been met with political paralysis. According to a recent Gallup Poll, only about a quarter of Americans now approve of the way President Obama is handling the economy. He hopes to change that next week, when he goes before a joint session of Congress to unveil his long-awaited jobs strategy.

White House economic adviser Gene Sperling says Mr. Obama will call for new public works projects, tax cuts for workers and small businesses and opportunities for the long-term unemployed.

GENE SPERLING: When you see the details of this plan on Thursday, what will be very clear is that it would have a meaningful impact on creating jobs and strengthening the economy over the next 12 to 18 months.

HORSLEY: But it won't be easy to get anything meaningful through a deeply divided Congress. It was a struggle to reach agreement on the mere timing of the president's speech, let alone the content. The White House says it's concentrating on jobs measures that have won bipartisan backing in the past. But former vice presidential adviser Jared Bernstein, who's now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says that may not be enough.

JARED BERNSTEIN: If the president were to try to structure his jobs agenda based on what Republicans or House Republicans specifically would support, it's not going to be much of an agenda at all. So he and his team need to articulate the best plan to help people get back to work. And if the political system blocks that plan, then he has to explain to the American people who's standing between them and their economic opportunities right now.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama said last month that if congressional Republicans reject his jobs plan, he'll take his case to the American people. But Sperling says next week's message will be a sincere effort at compromise, not a re-election campaign speech.

SPERLING: The goal here is not contrast. The goal is to get something done that can have a meaningful impact.

HORSLEY: The administration's move to scrap smog regulations today could also be seen as an olive branch to Republicans and the business community. Curbing regulations is a cornerstone of Republicans' jobs strategy, along with tax cuts. Mr. Obama also wants to extend the temporary cut in payroll taxes that's due to expire at the end of this year. Economists, including Bernstein, say that's the least the government should do to protect workers from a loss in take-home pay.

BERNSTEIN: To renew it just keeps your foot exactly where it is on the accelerator. It doesn't push it down, which is what we need. But neither does it take it off, which we really don't need.

HORSLEY: Next week's focus on job growth marks a shift in Washington, after months devoted to deficit reduction. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter complained in a conference call today that in lawmakers' zeal to cut the deficit and federal block grants, they forced him to lay off city workers. Nationwide, government payrolls fell by 17,000 last month.

Mayor MICHAEL NUTTER: Congress is working against the interests of Philadelphians and Americans by many of the at times senseless actions that they take. While they sit in the bubble of Washington, the rest of America is in pain.

HORSLEY: White House advisers say cutting the deficit is still a long-term priority for the president. But they add it will be hard to do that unless the economy picks up, and more Americans go back to work. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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