Five Years After Collapse, Obama Paints Mixed Economic Picture

Five years after the economic collapse, President Obama today reflected on where the US economy is today. The president pointed to progress over the past five years and millions of news jobs created. But, as he does every time he talks about the economy, he said the U.S. hasn't come far enough and blamed Congress for inaction.

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The president spoke about the shootings from the White House this morning. His remarks began almost an hour late, as he received updates on the situation. But the incident was not the main focus of the president's remarks. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, today's speech was meant to be a kind of reset.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: For most of the last month, the president and Congress have focused on Syria. Today, President Obama tried to shift the conversation back to the economy, and budget fights that are just around the corner. But he began with a tribute to the victims of what he called yet another mass shooting.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They're patriots, and they know the dangers of serving abroad. But today, they faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn't have expected here at home.

SHAPIRO: And then he pivoted to the events of five years ago, when banks failed, stocks plunged and credit disappeared. Obama said it can be hard to remember how scary those days were.

OBAMA: The economy was shrinking by an annual rate of more than 8 percent. Our businesses were shedding 800,000 jobs each month. It was a perfect storm that would rob millions of Americans of jobs and homes and savings that they had worked a lifetime to build.

SHAPIRO: He said most Americans don't associate the Great Recession with the collapse of Lehman Bros., which was five years ago this week. Rather, they think of pink slips and foreclosure notices. Then he described the gradual, steady recovery.

OBAMA: The unemployment rate has come down. Our housing market is healing. Our financial system is safer. We sell more goods made in America to the rest of the world than ever before.

SHAPIRO: But there are less sunny ways to look at the rebound. Unemployment is still at 7.3 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans disapprove of how Obama has handled the economy. Only a third of people surveyed said the economy is more secure now than it was before the crash. Obama acknowledged - as he does in every economic speech - we're not yet where we need to be.

OBAMA: We need to grow faster. We need more good-paying jobs. We need more broad-based prosperity. We need more ladders of opportunity.

SHAPIRO: And then his tone changed. In starkly partisan terms, he said Republicans are not focused on helping the middle-class.

OBAMA: I'm still hoping that a light bulb goes off here.

SHAPIRO: He didn't sound hopeful. And as his speech continued, he sounded tougher and more accusatory, expressing outright contempt for Republicans who threaten to shut down the government if Congress does not defund the health care law.

OBAMA: Are some of these folks really so beholden to one, extreme wing of their party that they're willing to tank the entire economy just because they can't get their way on this issue?

SHAPIRO: Most congressional Republicans are not in Washington today and didn't immediately respond. Economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin has worked for many of them. He's president of the American Action Forum.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: It really was a bare-knuckles political speech. It wasn't an economic speech, and it certainly wasn't the opening of a negotiation.

SHAPIRO: It was also a replay of a fight Obama has had with Republicans at nearly every important crossroads of his presidency. Obama repeated that he will not negotiate over raising the debt ceiling. And he said people who would threaten not to pay the country's bills, if they don't get their way, promise economic chaos.

OBAMA: The last time this same crew threatened this course of action back in 2011, even the mere suggestion of default slowed our economic growth.

SHAPIRO: Holtz-Eakin has watched all of these fights play out in the last few years, and many economists across the political spectrum share this assessment of his.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think it will go less smoothly than before. I'm expecting a rocky fall, quite frankly.

SHAPIRO: In this speech, President Obama said the single best way to avoid another economic crisis is, quote, "for Congress to pass a budget without drama." The audience responded audibly - they laughed.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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