President Obama is visiting a couple of swing states this week to talk about the economy and is urging lawmakers to extend unemployment benefits. But some senators have blocked that move for fear of adding to the federal deficit.
With a national jobless rate of 9.5 percent, the economy has been slow to add jobs — just 80,000 at private employers last month. Obama says the economy is moving in the right direction, but not fast enough.
"We're fighting to speed up this recovery and keep the economy growing by all means possible. That means extending unemployment insurance for workers who lost their jobs," Obama said in his most recent weekly radio address. "That means getting small businesses the loans they need to keep their doors open and hire new workers. And that means sending relief to states so they don't have to lay off thousands of teachers and firefighters and police officers."
But Washington isn't doing any of those things right now. Administration efforts to extend jobless benefits, boost small business lending and funnel money to the states have all been blocked in the Senate by lawmakers nervous about adding to the deficit.
David Walker of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation has been sounding the alarm about the federal deficit for years. But even he says that's no excuse for the government to ignore more immediate concerns. Walker told the president's debt commission last week that the government should tackle both problems.
"In our view, to ease the economic pain of unemployment and underemployed Americans, and avoid a double-dip recession, we can and should pursue targeted and short-term initiatives that are temporary, properly designed, appropriately conditioned and effectively implemented."
Like unemployed workers, state governments are facing their own budget crunch. The states cut some 10,000 jobs last month. And White House economic adviser Christina Romer says job cuts in the states will only accelerate without more federal aid.
"The idea that we're going to lay off hundreds of thousands of teachers or policemen or firefighters — those are people in a job, they want to stay in a job," Romer says. "It seems like a very smart and sensible way to keep employment up and to provide essential government services."
But a Gallup Poll released last month showed Americans are just about as concerned with government debt as they are with unemployment — especially Republicans. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who is running for U.S. Senate, gives voice to that concern in a new campaign ad that began running this week.
"Irresponsible spending and crippling debt are killing jobs today, and our children's future tomorrow," the ad says.
In his trip to Missouri on Wednesday — Missouri's jobless rate is below the national average but still painfully high at 9.3 percent — Obama plans to visit a company that makes electric trucks. Smith Electric Vehicles employs about 50 people, and it hopes to double that payroll this year with help from a $32 million grant from the Energy Department.
Sandi Garrison of Kansas City would very much like to get one of those new Smith jobs.
Garrison was laid off from her last job in 2008, and except for some temporary and contract assignments, she's been out of work for a year and a half.
"I get out and network all the time. And I go to job clubs. I really, really try hard to find a job, but still I have not been the chosen candidate," Garrison says.
At her last interview — for an administrative assistant position — she was one of 350 applicants, she says.
Her unemployment benefits ran out last month, and unless she gets an extension or finds a new job soon, Garrison says it's going to be a lean year: No eating out. No splurging. And certainly no big-ticket purchases that might give a lift to other would-be workers.
"My car's got 181,000 miles. I need to get a job so I can purchase a different car and help the economy," Garrison says. "You know, it's going to be a tailspin pretty soon."
Unemployment is an even bigger problem in Nevada, where the jobless rate is now 14 percent, the nation's highest. President Obama will make another push for government relief efforts in Las Vegas on Friday.