Obama jobs summit: real help for unemployed, or PR move?

President Obama will host a jobs summit in December to consider strategies for shrinking ranks of the unemployed. What are some options?

By , Staff writer

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    Workers use a hydraulic brake press to shape a metal form at Streich Bros., Inc., in Tacoma, Washington, Tuesday. The company is taking part in the shared work program which lets employees claim some unemployment benefits if their work hours have been cut.
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President Obama plans to host a forum on jobs and economic growth next month at the White House, but what, really, can Washington do to accelerate hiring to pull the nation out of the deepest unemployment abyss in a generation?

The president said Thursday he will invite CEOs, small-business owners, economists, and labor unions to take part in the summit. It's a recognition that, though the economy appears to be growing again, the recession won't really be over for Americans until the unemployment rate, currently at a generational high of 10.2 percent, retreats.

Some economists doubt that Washington can do much to improve the job climate – and suggest the effort may be more public-relations gesture than action.

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“I am skeptical of anything they can do: The economic stimulus program has been so ineffective,” says Bob Brusca of Fact & Opinion Economics in New York. “It’s just more grand politics.”

But Andrew Stettner of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in New York argues that the summit a good sign that the president is focused on jobs, not just healthcare reform and foreign policy.

"We just need the same will out of the White House and Congress that they displayed with the stimulus bill,” says Mr. Stettner.

Stettner would like to see the White House push for a Depression-era-style public job program that would provide government funds for Americans to do public works programs, such as cleaning stream beds or tutoring children.

“Given the length of time [it takes for the economy] to get jobs back, it’s an idea to get on the table,” he says.

The economy, however, is already producing signs that the job market is turning around, says Mr. Brusca. On Thursday, for example, the government reported that new claims for unemployment insurance fell to 502,000 from 514,000 the week before. This is the lowest level since January.

“This is evidence the economy is doing better,” says Brusca.

However, Democratic leaders may be looking to show they're taking concrete steps to hasten job creation. Only last week, a Democratic governor in New Jersey lost his job, and Virginia voters chose a Republican over a Democrat to take over governance in Richmond.

“They are worried that unless they do something they will follow [New Jersey's] Mr. Corzine into oblivion,” says Brusca.

That may be one reason that Sen. Harry Reid, majority leader, is promising his Democratic Senate colleagues a job-creation bill for 2010. Senator Reid offered no specifics except to indicate it was a priority.

Illustrating the political nature of the rising unemployment rate, immediately after Obama’s announcement Thursday of the jobs forum, House Republican whip Eric Cantor of Virginia issued a statement offering up Republican ideas and solutions. They include a reduction in small-business taxes.

"During the spring, summer, and fall we met with small business owners who made clear that the new mandates and taxes being proposed by the Democratic majority make it impossible for them to grow and expand,” said Representative Cantor in a statement.

Mr. Obama, in his announcement, said it is important that “we don’t make any ill-considered decisions, even with the best intentions, particularly at a time when our resources are so limited.

“But it’s just as important," he added, "that we are open to any demonstrably good idea to supplement the steps we’ve already taken to put Americans back to work. That’s what this forum is about.”

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See also:

Some good news regarding unemployment

Small business: Tight credit makes job creation tough

Post-Depression first: Americans get more money from government than they give back

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