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'Recovery Summer' Ends With Economic Pothole

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'Recovery Summer' Ends With Economic Pothole

'Recovery Summer' Ends With Economic Pothole

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This was supposed to be Recovery Summer. The economy was supposed to heat up, thanks to a wave of public works projects funded by the government's stimulus program. But summer is ending and the recovery has not taken root.

Today, the Labor Department released August unemployment numbers, which remain high, climbing a bit, in fact, to 9.6 percent. Before long, stimulus dollars will be fading - like autumn leaves.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports on a season of discontent.

SCOTT HORSLEY: On the Friday before the summer solstice, President Obama joined a crowd in hardhats in Columbus, Ohio to announce a $15 million effort to widen the roadway, add bike lanes, and press the accelerator on the nation's economic turnaround.

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)

HORSLEY: It was the beginning of what the White House called Recovery Summer, and part of what needed recovery was the reputation of the government's $787 billion stimulus program. While many economists believe that program has worked to boost employment, the public is not impressed.

Outgoing White House adviser Christina Romer acknowledged this week the president's team underestimated the depths of the recession, and in front-loading the stimulus with tax cuts and aid to states, they opted for speed over visibility.

Dr. CHRISTINA ROMER (White House Advisor): As happens with many decisions, pragmatism won out. We agreed that many of the things that would improve the economy fastest were unglamorous measures - many of which don't come with Recovery Act signs or easily identifiable links to the act.�It's been hard for people to see what the act has done.

HORSLEY: Recovery Summer was supposed to change that, as more federal dollars were poured into easily recognizable public works, including 15,000 road projects - enough to crisscross the country 10 times.

Mr. JOHN HORSLEY (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials): There's so many going on, you almost can't take a drive this summer without seeing orange cones.

HORSLEY: John Horsley, who heads an association of state transportation officials, says all those federally funded road projects have kept some 74,000 construction workers busy this summer.�But that's not enough to patch the country's giant economic pothole. With housing in a deep slump, unemployment in construction still tops 17 percent.

President Obama joked back in June that the hungry road crews in Columbus would keep area restaurants busy. But it didn't work out that way for John Plank, who owns a nearby pizzeria.

Mr. JOHN PLANK (Owner, Plank's Cafe & Pizzeria): We're third generation -started in 1939. My brother and I run it. Our sister helps us a little.

HORSLEY: Plank says business has been slow this summer, in part because the road construction makes it hard for customers to reach his restaurant. He hoped to at least capitalize on the day of the president's visit, but the expected crowds didn't materialize.

Mr. PLANK: I hate to say it, but you know, it's our worst Friday we've had in 10 years, just because nobody could get to us. You know, I thought there were going to be all kinds of people down there, but I guess there was only 30 to 40 people, and they were all from Washington.

HORSLEY: Plank does think pizza sales will pick up this fall, especially if the Ohio State Buckeyes have a good season. But not everyone is so patient.

Private sector hiring dropped off sharply in this country after the Greek debt crisis. And by mid-August the president's Gallup approval rating had fallen to a record low of 41 percent. It's bounced back a bit since then, but congressional Democrats still face the prospect of big losses in November.

White House political adviser David Axelrod says the recovery is taking longer than anyone would like.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (White House Adviser): There are still 15 million people looking for jobs. There's still a great deal of uncertainty. You know, we have challenges that we have to continue to fight through, and it is not going to be a straight line. It is not going to be easy.

HORSLEY: On Monday of this week, President Obama huddled with his economic advisers, looking for new ways the government could promote hiring.

(Soundbite of tapping on microphone)

President OBAMA: What we - how we doing on sound, guys?

HORSLEY: But as the president spoke to reporters in the Rose Garden afterwards, even a balky White House audio system seemed to be working against him.

(Soundbite of tapping on microphone)

President OBAMA: Can you guys still hear us? Okay.

Let me try this one more time.

HORSLEY: The president might not get many more tries at recovery. This is one summer Mr. Obama is probably happy to put behind him.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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