Week In News: Obama's 'Recovery Summer'

President Obama spent part of Friday in Columbus, Ohio, marking the 10,000 project to be launched under the Recovery Act. Host Guy Raz speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about the politics behind job recovery.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today, I return to Columbus to mark a milestone on the road to recovery: the 10,000th project launched under the Recovery Act. That's worth a big round of applause.

(Soundbite of applause)

RAZ: President Obama speaking in Ohio on Friday, touting the administration stimulus plan.

James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic and he joins us here most Saturdays.

Jim, welcome back from two weeks in China.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (News Analyst, The Atlantic): Thank you very much, Guy.

RAZ: Let's start with jobs. Unemployment, of course, is hovering around 9 percent. The Democrats seem either unwilling or afraid to push for a job stimulus bill. They're, of course, worried about adding to the deficit and the perception of adding to the deficit. At the same time, Jim, NPR released a poll this past week that shows that Democrats are in deep trouble going into the midterms. How much is the jobless question a problem for the Democrats in Congress and for the White House?

Mr. FALLOWS: Of course, it's a big problem and part of this is the eternal challenge that any administration faces. This is very much the same situation that Ronald Reagan had two years into his term in 1982.

On the one hand, we judge presidents in the long run by the big things they take on, the big things they accomplish or don't. On the other hand, when each election rolls around, especially these midterms, it usually is the jobless rate. That's the most powerful single variable. That's why James Carville is so famous for it's the economy, stupid as his motto.

And so, the challenge for the president, the administration, is to be consistent with their long-term goals, while also attending to the thing which will make most difference in their prospects this year.

I think there's one other thing here to mention which is the confused U.S. discussion of the term deficits. Certainly, everybody agrees that in the long run, deficits for the U.S. government or others really matter.

But in the short-term, in times of economic downturn, it's the lack of deficits that's most significant for getting people back to work. Somebody compared this to worrying about your furniture getting wet, when firemen are trying to put off fire in your house that in the short-term is a shortage of deficits, which actually should be more worrisome.

RAZ: Jim, turning to China now. Earlier today, the country's central bank announced it may allow its currency, the renminbi, to float more freely against the dollar. What kind of impact could that have? I mean, could it, for example, make American manufacturers more competitive against their Chinese counterparts?

Mr. FALLOWS: In the short run, probably not. I've spent - as you and I have discussed - I spent a lot of time in the factories of southern China. I was there again just last week.

And the cost differential between Chinese wage rates and the rest of the world is still so great, and the infrastructure advantage the Chinese manufacturers have with their ports and their highways and their airports and all the rest is so sort of well-developed that, in the short run, I think there probably are going to be zero jobs that will come right back to Ohio or Michigan as the RMB starts to move again, the Chinese currency.

But over the next months, the next years, this should be a move towards a larger balance of China's chronic exports and chronic surplus with the deficits elsewhere, including the U.S.

RAZ: Finally, Jim, to the oil spill and BP. Everyone from the White House to members of Congress seems to be pointing to BP as the sole culprit here. But I wonder, Jim, whether that's too convenient. I mean, we all buy oil. We all, in America, have sort of become dependent on cheap oil. The government basically subsidizes it. Is it fair to put all of this on one company alone? Is that too easy?

Mr. FALLOWS: Sure. And like most things we talk about in politics, it is too easy. And if we didn't need so much oil, if we didn't need so much energy, we wouldn't need so much from BP and so much from these deep ocean wells, et cetera.

So I think using this episode as an occasion for a shift in energy policy is important. On the other hand, I am impressed not just by the testimony in the last week or so in the Congress with the hapless CEO Hayward from BP, but also interviews I've had with people from other oil industry company, saying that there were things BP did which really weren't industry standard.

You have Halliburton talking about risks BP took. You have Shell officials talking about this, a number of other companies. So I think we need to look to ourselves in the long run. But I think BP also has more than just a sort of accidental bystander role here.

RAZ: That's James Fallows of The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thanks again. Welcome back.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy.

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