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President Obama says stopping the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is by necessity his top priority right now. But yesterday the president took time to discuss another pressing concern: the economy. Speaking at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he said the economy is moving in the right direction, without help from Republicans in Congress. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: The U.S. economy is in the midst of a U-turn, and President Obama is claiming some of the credit. Economic output's on the rise. Consumer confidence is up. And when a new employment report for May comes out tomorrow, it's expected to show more than half a million new jobs.
President BARACK OBAMA: This economy is getting stronger by the day. Now, that doesn't mean this recession is by any means over for the millions of Americans who are still looking for a job or a way to pay the bills. Not by a long shot.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says the nascent recovery still needs all the help the federal government can muster. That includes extended unemployment checks for people whose benefits have run out, more subsidies for health insurance, and more aid to cities and states, so dwindling tax revenues don't mean more layoffs for cops and schoolteachers.
President OBAMA: The economy is still fragile. So we can't put on the brakes too quickly. We have to do what it takes to ensure a strong recovery.
HORSLEY: But Mr. Obama is beginning to meet resistance, even from members of his own party, who wonder how long the federal government can afford to keep pumping up the economy with borrowed money. Last week the House had to scale back a jobs bill in order to secure the votes of fiscally conservative Democrats.
Economist Diane Lim Rogers of the deficit watchdog Concord Coalition says it's time for the government to start thinking about how to gracefully withdraw its economic lifelines.
Ms. DIANE LIM ROGERS (Economist, Concord Coalition): We are in recovery. We just need to get to a place where we show signs that we have a plan to pay our bills. And I think that that is a concern right now, that we don't have a plan.
HORSLEY: Others argue that fixing the deficit can wait. Larry Mishel, who heads the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, notes that unemployment is still painfully close to 10 percent. He'd like to see the federal government borrow more money, if necessary, to put more people back to work.
Mr. LARRY MISHEL (Economic Policy Institute): This is not the moment you want to switch to doing deficit reduction. If you want to build a new foundation for growth, as the president suggests, you know, first we need jobs.
HORSLEY: That new foundation is a blueprint President Obama first sketched out more than a year ago, in a speech at Georgetown University. He called for fundamental changes in health care, education and Wall Street regulation.
Yesterday he was able to boast of some progress on those fronts. Health care overhaul is now the law. And new rules for Wall Street could be soon.
President OBAMA: Now, some of you may have noticed that we have been building this foundation without much help from our friends in the other party.
HORSLEY: Congressional Republicans make no bones about opposing the president's agenda. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor said yesterday the path to prosperity lies in smaller government and a growing private sector. Mr. Obama countered -in a theme likely to be repeated between now and November - there are times when only government can do what individuals can't, and what corporations won't.
President OBAMA: That's how we have Social Security, and a minimum wage, and laws to protect the food we eat and the water we drink and the air that we breathe. That's how we have rules to ensure that mines are safe. And yes, that oil companies pay for the spills that they cause.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama used the BP oil spill to push for another plank in his new foundation: cleaner alternative sources of energy. He promised support for a comprehensive energy bill, now before the Senate, that would put a price on carbon emissions.
President OBAMA: The votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months. I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says that Senate bill includes Republican ideas, even though at this point it has no Republican support.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.