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For Obama, Steady Unemployment Numbers Disappoint

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For Obama, Steady Unemployment Numbers Disappoint

Politics

For Obama, Steady Unemployment Numbers Disappoint

For Obama, Steady Unemployment Numbers Disappoint

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The number of unemployed Americans grew slightly last month, but not enough to raise the unemployment rate. For President Obama, the ongoing struggle to right the economy poses both policy and political challenges.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

We are going to stay with that unemployment news and that number we mentioned. American businesses cut another 85,000 jobs last month. Over the last two years the U.S. economy has lost more than seven million jobs. That's bad news for Americans looking for work.

It also poses a political challenge for the White House, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Experts can point to a lot of encouraging sings that the U.S. economy is growing again, but for most people the sign that matters is a paycheck, especially if they are not getting one. President Obama says yesterday's disappointing jobs report is another reminder the road to recovery is never straight.

President BARACK OBAMA: We have to continue to work every single day to get our economy moving again. For most Americans and for me, that means jobs. It means whether we are putting people back to work.

HORSLEY: Some people did go back to work in November. A revised estimate shows the U.S. actually added jobs that month for the first time in almost two years. But the gain was small - only about 4,000 jobs, and quickly overshadowed by the steeper than expected job losses in December.

Christina Romer, who heads the president's Council Of Economic Advisors, says while last months job cuts were disappointing, they have to be kept in perspective.

Ms. CHRISTINA ROMER (Council Of Economic Advisors): This is how real recoveries happen. They come in fits and starts. And now it looks like November was a start and December was a little bit of a fit. And I think the important thing is what - you know, we keep emphasizing the overall trajectory.

HORSLEY: Job losses have slowed dramatically since the beginning of the year. And many economists say that's at least partly due to the federal government's stimulus program. Nigel Gault of the forecasting firm IHS Global Insight says December's job loses were a setback but a relatively small one.

Mr. NIGEL GAULT (IHS Global Insight): Given the momentum that seems to be there in the economy at the moment, particularly pick-up seems to be evident in manufacturing, some improvement in retail sales, it does seem that we are likely to be adding jobs over the next few months.

HORSLEY: But even if the economy starts adding jobs month after month, it will take a long time to fill the deep hole left by the recession. At least one in 10 Americans who wants to work can't find a job right now. And others are so discouraged they have quit looking; that's worst unemployment picture in at least a generation, as Mr. Obama knows all too well.

President OBAMA: Many of you know, I get about 10 letters a night that I take a look at. I often hear from Americans who are facing hard times. Americans have lost their jobs or can't afford to pay their bills. They are worried about what the future holds.

HORSLEY: The president's own political future, as well as that of congressional Democrats, could depend on how people feel about the economy. Some members of his own party want Mr. Obama to focus more exclusively on job creation. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says the president wakes up concerned every day about where the economy is, even if he is also pulled in other directions, by events like the attempted bombing of an airliner.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): I think Washington's attention is focused on jobs. I think Washington's attention is focused on our security situation. Each day Washington has to be focused on many different things.

HORSLEY: The White House is planning to raise the visibility of its work on the economy in the weeks to come. Yesterday, Mr. Obama announced the award of more than $2 billion in tax credits under the stimulus program to promote clean energy jobs. He says he'd like to see another $5 billion devoted to that effort.

President OBAMA: If we can tap the talents of our workers, and our innovators, and our entrepreneurs, if we can gain the lead in clean energy worldwide, then we'll forge a future where a better life is possible in our country over the long run.

HORSLEY: In the short run, though, each demand for more government spending will have to be weighed against worries over rising deficits. That's one big reason Mr. Obama seems reluctant to call for stimulus efforts on a scale that could have a dramatic impact on the unemployment rate. Instead, he'll be trying to get the most bang he can, both economically and politically, from a limited number of bucks.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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