Obama Previews Jobs Plan In Detroit

President Obama is trying to rally public support for the jobs program he'll spell out to Congress later this week. At a Labor Day rally in Detroit Monday, Obama offered a sneak preview of parts of the plan. Labor leaders said they're encouraged by the president's new-found aggressiveness on the jobs front.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

Again and again, President Obama's White House has promised that now he'll focus on jobs.

INSKEEP: Again and again, he's been pulled off course, often by disasters, both natural and political.

GREENE: This week, the president is focusing on jobs, and that will include a speech before Congress.

INSKEEP: In Detroit yesterday, the president stood next to Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters union leader, who spoke of the debate over the economy as a war. And the president previewed parts of his plan to create jobs.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama acknowledges these are tough times for working people, and tougher still for the millions who aren't working. Even so, Mr. Obama tried to strike an upbeat tone. Speaking outside the General Motors Renaissance Center in Detroit yesterday, he said the middle class is overdue for a renaissance of its own.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't know about you, but I'm not scared of tough times.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: I'm not scared of tough times, because I know we're going to be all marching together and walking together and working together and rebuilding together. And I know we don't quit.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

(Soundbite of song, "Respect")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Find out what it means to me.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

HORSLEY: Thousands of people had assembled in the GM parking lot to hear the president and his warm-up act, Aretha Franklin. Many in the crowd were proudly sporting union T-shirts. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says Labor Day is a good opportunity to show respect for Teamsters and teachers and other working people.

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (President, AFL-CIO): Thank you to the autoworkers who made the cars and trucks that brought us here today.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

HORSLEY: One of those autoworkers was tapped to introduce the president. Ghana Goodwin Dodd works at a GM plant that would have closed, were it not for the automaker's government rescue two years ago.

Ms. GHANA GOODWIN DODD (General Motors): Thank you, President Obama, for having the courage to stand up for the American worker and the American auto companies.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

HORSLEY: Today, both GM and Chrysler are making money again, and enjoying double-digit sales gains. The rescue of the automakers is typical of the economic moves Mr. Obama made during his first year in office when the recession was at its worst: big, bold, sometimes politically unpopular.

More recently, Mr. Obama's been more cautious and more focused on deficit reduction. With Republicans in control of the House, he's also had less room to maneuver. Now, with the economy stalling again, labor leaders like Trumka say it's time for another round of aggressive government jobs action, and Mr. Obama hints, part of the plan he'll unveil on Thursday is a new push for spending on public works.

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

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: There is work to be done, and there are workers ready to do it. Labor's on board. Business is on board. We just need Congress to get on board. Let's put America back to work.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama's also been calling for a renewal of the payroll tax cut, to preserve workers' take-home pay and their buying power. He's practically daring Congressional Republicans to vote against it.

Pres. OBAMA: You say you're the party of tax cuts.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Pres. OBAMA: Well then prove you'll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans. Show us what you got.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama has sometimes disappointed his union supporters, failing to push through a bill to make it easier to organize, for example. But yesterday, he defended organized labor as crucial for a strong middle class, and he challenged those Republicans who've been pushing to limit collective bargaining rights.

Pres. OBAMA: And I want everybody here to know, as long as I'm in the White House, I'm going to stand up for collective bargaining.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: Just how long Mr. Obama is in the White House could depend on the enthusiasm he's able to generate among working families, both unionized and not. The organized workers at yesterday's rally were cheering him on with chants of "four more years."

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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