White House Jobs Summit: Real Progress or PR Stunt?

Obama: Not Interested in 'Taking a Wait-and-See Approach' to Job Creation


Dec. 3, 2009

President Obama said today that he is not interested in "taking a wait-and-see approach" when it comes to job creation, as his administration faces unemployment numbers at their worst levels since 1983.

"What I'm interested in is taking action right now to help businesses create jobs right now, in the near term," the president said at the opening session of the White House jobs summit.

The summit, announced a week after the Bureau of Labor Statistics said unemployment reached 10.2 percent, is the administration's latest effort to do just that.

However, some critics dismiss it as little more than a publicity stunt.

Obama acknowledged the skepticism that the summit would produce tangible results, but said he was confident there would be some progress from the discussions among the 135 leaders from every sector of the economy -- government, labor, academia, non profits and business of all sizes -- gathered at the White House today.

"I'm confident that people like you -- who built thriving businesses or revolutionized industries or brought cities and communities together and changed the way we look at the world and innovated and created new products -- that you can come up with some additional good ideas on how to create jobs," he said.

"I need everybody here to bring their 'A game' here today," Obama added, challenging the participants to come up with "fresh perspectives" and "new ideas."

The president said he was looking for "specific recommendations" that can be implemented to spur job growth "as quickly as possible."

"I'm going to be asking some tough questions. I will be listening for some good answers. And I don't want to just brainstorm up at 30,000 feet," he said.

With the country dealing with its highest unemployment rate in 26 years, the administration is under pressure to get Americans back to work. While unemployment is traditionally a lagging indicator -- taking longer to turn around than the stock market and other economic indicators -- time is of the essence.

"We inherited an economic meltdown 10 months ago when he took office," senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett told "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts today.

"He moved boldly to get us back on track with a variety of measures. We still have an unemployment rate that is far too high," Jarrett added. "He thinks today is a great opportunity to bring in new fresh ideas."

But is the White House jobs summit an event that will spur tangible actions?

Some are asking if the summit is just a glorified public-relations stunt, despite the presence of some of the country's best and brightest business executives, finance experts, economists, small business owners and labor leaders to discuss ways to generate job creation.

"We're not going to get anything useful out of it," said Peter Morici, professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business.

The president and his treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, "really don't know what to do," Morici said.

The White House characterizes the summit as a listening opportunity, a chance for Obama and his economic team to hear directly from key business leaders their ideas on how to get Americans back to work.

"I would say to those critics, we welcome your ideas," Jarrett said. "We embrace all good ideas and I think critics should stop saying what won't work and come forward with what will work."

The president and vice president will deliver remarks to open the forum and then members of the Cabinet will hold smaller working sessions on job creation, economic growth and green jobs.

"There are companies that are out there that are expanding. ... We have a variety of different ways we can really drill down and come up with concrete new ideas," Jarrett said, adding that the discussions in the job summit will focus on infrastructure, small jobs, exports, green jobs and "innovative ways to retooling our workforce."

In the coming weeks, "the president will be embracing those ideas, working with Congress if legislation is necessary," she added. "We do everything we can each and every day to bring down that unemployment rate."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday the government alone cannot create jobs to get the economy moving again.

"That's the private sector," he said. "What I think the president wants to do is hear from them on the type of environment that we can have that would allow for that hiring to take place."

The White House will carry the event live on its Web site at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

The Obama administration also wants regular Americans to contribute ideas to the discussion, and encourages citizens to hold their own forums in their community. The White House will send discussion questions and other material to facilitate the discussions. Hosts then can upload feedback to the White House Web site, where it will be compiled into the forum's report to the president.

Still, Morici said that the summit is another example of Washington trying to fix problems with meetings.

"They think they can solve everything by convening a committee," he said. "Look at his war decision. Obama really doesn't have ideas, and so he can't make decisions and he can't put programs into place that have results."

Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business, echoed that criticism of the administration's efforts, dubbing the jobs summit "a political show." Dunkelberg gave the administration a "D" on creating new jobs.

"There's been a lot of money spent and authorized, but it really hasn't been very effective at delivering job creation," he told ABC News' business correspondent Betsy Stark.

But other analysts take a far brighter view of the administration's efforts, noting that the $787 billion stimulus plan has helped generate hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Just this week, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said the stimulus generated up to 1.6 million jobs during the fourth quarter, far exceeding even the administration's claims that the stimulus had saved or created 640,000 jobs.

The stimulus, said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, "was a bold and effective plan that's already created close to 1.5 million jobs."

Mishel, who will be attending the summit, gave the administration an "A" or "A-minus" on its job creation measures. Also among the summit's 130 attendees is Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

While Schmidt acknowledged that "everything in Washington is a little bit of political theater," he noted that the White House has been "pretty focused on the jobs issue privately for a very long time."

"They're very worried about it because they understand it both in an economic context as well as a political context," Schmidt told Stark.

The Google boss said the administration has done everything possible to get the country to stop hemorrhaging jobs.

"The administration did a very, very good job getting the actual financial crisis resolved, pretty much by textbook, and they did it pretty quickly," he said. "We're in a much better situation now. Having said that, we knew we would have a jobs problem. And I'm not sure what else they could have done six months ago aside from talk about, 'What are we going to do about the jobs issue?' earlier."

However, Republicans on Capitol Hill have seized on the country's rising unemployment as ammunition to blast the administration. While the jobs summit takes place at the White House, just down Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, will be conducting a roundtable discussion of his own on the jobs issue.

"We've lost three million jobs over the course of this year, we have a 10.2 percent unemployment rate and we'll be talking about how to really help small businesses and American families get the economy moving," Boehner said Wednesday. "We'll probably also talk about the job-killing policies that this administration continues to support.

"When you start talking about the government takeover of health care and higher taxes, when you start talking about a national energy tax, when you look at all of the debt that's being piled up and the uncertainty over what tax rates will be in effect, you can understand why business people all over the country are sitting on their hands," said the Ohio lawmaker. "They're scared to death to reinvest in this economy until there is some certainty about what's going to happen with all these policies."

Despite the partisan back-and-forth, some analysts emphasize that the key factor in the country's employment turnaround simply will be time.

"Are they doing a good job in terms of getting the economy going and the stimulus program? The answer is yes," John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo, told Stark. "Is it solving the problem yet? No. Time is going to be the big determinant of when we work out of this unemployment issue."

ABC News' Huma Khan, Betsy Stark and Justine Schiro contributed to this report.