Obama Urges Congressional Action On Jobs

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President Obama traveled Monday to Detroit for a Labor Day event. His visit to the union stronghold comes the same week he's expected to address a joint session of Congress describing his plan to create jobs.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Today is a holiday for many working families, but for millions of Americans Labor Day is just one more Monday without a job, another reminder that their labor is not in demand, at least for the moment. President Obama spent this Labor Day in Michigan where the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country, nearly 11 percent. Mr. Obama promised a fresh government effort to encourage job growth.

President BARACK OBAMA: We've got roads and bridges across this country...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes.

OBAMA: ...that need rebuilding.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.

OBAMA: We've got private companies with the equipment and the manpower to do the building.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.

OBAMA: We've got more than one million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: There is work to be done, and there are workers ready to do it. Labor is on board. Business is on board. We just need Congress to get on board.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: Let's get America back to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIEGEL: NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins us now from Detroit. And, Scott, later this week, President Obama is set to give a major speech on jobs to a joint session of Congress. What kind of sneak preview did he offer today?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, it's a bit of tease, Robert. He said he didn't want to give too much away because he wants the folks here to watch that speech on Thursday. But when you heard him talking about construction workers who are ready to get dirty, that's a signal that part of his jobs package is going to include additional federal support for public works projects, for rebuilding those roads and bridges he talked about. He also talked about renewal of the middle-class tax cut that was extended just for one year. And if it's not extended, it's due to expire at the end of this year, and that would mean a 2 percent tax increase for folks on their Social Security payments.

SIEGEL: But many of the president's ideas, it would need support from a deeply divided Congress, and that would include Republicans in the House. What are the chances of that happening?

HORSLEY: Well, it's not very encouraging. And we saw how much argument there was just over the timing of the president's speech. There was a hint from the House Republican leader, Eric Cantor, last Friday after that dismal jobs report that there might be some areas where the two parties can work together, but there's not been a whole lot this summer to encourage faith in the kind of bipartisan cooperation the president was calling for today.

SIEGEL: This is Labor Day, and organized labor played a big role in the president's election three years ago. Since then, a lot of union leaders have been disappointed by the president's performance. Did Mr. Obama make any special effort to mend those fences today?

HORSLEY: Well, he gave a pretty spirited speech today, which is what a lot of organized labor leaders have been wanting to hear from this president. Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, had said earlier that he really wanted the president to be more of a fighter and wants him to go bold and doesn't want him to just tinkering around the edges. What we did hear today from the president was a pretty full-throated defense of the role that organized labor has played in everything from the 40-hour workweek to, you know, higher living standards for working Americans.

And he defended collective bargaining rights, especially in the public sector where they've been under assault in a lot of neighboring Midwestern states. He said that as long as he's president, he's going to stand up for collective bargaining rights, and that prompted some cheers in the crowd here of four more years.

SIEGEL: Now, we should note that today's event was held in the parking lot of a General Motors plant, and even with the soft economy, GM enjoyed a pretty good summer, didn't it?

HORSLEY: That's right. And the president certainly wants to remind voters here in Michigan of the role - the risk in the role that he played in rescuing not only General Motors but Chrysler, and that's a gamble, which while politically unpopular at the time, has paid off for those two companies and for a lot of workers here in the Midwest. GM is profitable again. Chrysler is profitable again. And in August, GM sales were actually up 18 percent from a year ago. Chrysler sales are up 31 percent.

So the president is reminding folks that that was part of the aggressive government action that's a lot people have been so critical of but which has made a positive difference for a lot of workers here in Michigan and around the Midwest.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley traveling with President Obama on this Labor Day. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert. Happy Labor Day.

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