WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2010 -- President Obama has for months said that rebuilding the economy and creating jobs is his "most urgent task." And, today, despite sagging public confidence in his abilities, he told a spirited crowd of union supporters in Milwaukee that he'll "keep fighting every single day to turn this economy around."
Obama used the Labor Day event to unveil a new six-year, $50 billion plan to create jobs by improving and expanding 150,000 miles of the nation's roads, 4,000 miles of railways and 150 miles of runways.
"We used to have the best infrastructure in the world and we can have it again," Obama said. "We want to change the way Washington spends your tax dollars; we want to reform the way we fund and maintain our infrastructure to focus less on wasteful earmarks and outdated formulas, and we want competition and innovation that gives us the best bang for the buck."
In unveiling his latest economic proposal, which could face opposition in Congress, Obama also took a preemptive swipe at Republicans, whom he said have become the party of "No, we can't."
"When it comes to just about everything we've done to strengthen the middle class to rebuild our economy, almost every Republican in Congress says 'no.' Even on things we usually agree on, they say 'no,'" he said. "If I say the sky is blue, they say 'no.' If I said fish live in the sea, they'd say 'no.'"
He reiterated what has become a theme for Democrats heading into the November elections, reminding the audience that Republican policies and those of the George W. Bush administration "didn't work out so well for our country."
But Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner today accused the administration of failing to keep its promise to fix the economy and noted that unemployment has been on the rise.
"If we've learned anything from the past 18 months, it's that we can't spend our way to prosperity," he said. "We don't need more government 'stimulus' spending - we need to end Washington Democrats' out-of-control spending spree, stop their tax hikes, and create jobs by eliminating the job-killing uncertainty that is hampering our small businesses."
Obama said the plan would be "fully paid for" and would not add to the deficit, although senior administration officials haven't released details on the financing other than to suggest it could come from closing tax loopholes used by oil and gas companies.
Obama also promised that "all of this will not only create jobs now, it also will make our economy hum over the long haul."
Officials acknowledged, however, that the first jobs wouldn't be created until 2011.
Still, many economists believe the infrastructure projects Obama proposed today and other initiatives he's expected to announce later this week could hasten job growth the economy needs in the months ahead.
"At this point, it's not my ideal strategy," economist Paul Krugman said. "But I think if [Obama] can get a payroll tax holiday that's really largely, on paper, a tax cut for businesses, a lot of the benefit would flow to workers and be a reason to employ more people. So, I'll take it."
But it's unclear whether Congress will consider and pass the measures before the November elections or whether voters would notice their effects before they head to the polls.
The latest round of proposed economic fixes comes after the Labor Department reported last week that the economy shed 54,000 jobs in August and the unemployment rate ticked upward to 9.6 percent.
But private sector businesses did continue to add jobs for the eighth consecutive month, a sign, the White House says, that the economy is bouncing back.
"The new jobs just haven't been coming fast enough," Obama said. "The plain truth is, there's no silver bullet or quick fix to the problem. ... It will take more time than any of us wants to dig out of the hole created by this economic crisis."
The president heads to Cleveland Wednesday, when he is expected to propose additional ideas to help spark economic growth, including new tax breaks for small businesses and a permanent extension of a research and development tax credits.
Labor Secretary: 'There Are Jobs Out There'
So far, the small, positive economic gains touted by the administration -- and the argument by many Democrats that the recession could have been much worse without their economic policies -- have failed to win popular support.
The latest USA Today/Gallup poll found Americans believe Republicans would do a better job than Democrats in handling the economy by a 49 to 38 percent margin.
The president devoted most of the past week to foreign affairs, heralding the end of combat operations in Iraq and hosting the first direct peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians in nearly two years.
Much of July and August was consumed with other controversies and crises, from the BP oil spill to a proposed "mosque" near Ground Zero, that seemed to distract from the administration's message. The first family also took a 10-day vacation on Martha's Vineyard.
Meanwhile, what the White House had billed as "Recovery Summer" largely failed to materialize. Vice President Joe Biden predicted in April that creation of 250,000 to 500,000 new jobs a month could be on the horizon.
"The stimulus -- the plan he laid out last year -- has worked when it was tried, but it was obvious from the beginning that it was too small," economist Krugman said.
Many economists agree the $787 billion stimulus -- formally known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act -- did soften the blow of the recession. The independent Congressional Budget Office estimated 3.3 million jobs were saved.
But it's impact largely has worn off.
Economic growth is "going to drop rapidly for the rest of this year and the Recovery Act is going to add zero. It will have run out," said Josh Bivens, an economist at the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute.
The White House has acknowledged there may be limited options left for Obama besides trying to build consumer confidence and to continue trying smaller-scale targeted measures to boost growth.
The president will hold a rare formal press conference with reporters at the White House on Friday.
"I think there's no doubt that there's only so much that can be done," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs last week.
In the meantime, at least one member of the administration is telling unemployed workers to look a little harder.
"There are jobs out there," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "And, this Labor Day -- and every day -- I'm going to continue helping people find them and employers fill them."