Obama launches new push for US jobs, tapping GE's Immelt to help

The economy is 'not growing fast enough yet,' Obama acknowledged Friday, speaking to GE workers in Schenectady, N.Y. Will GE's CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, prove to be his guide to building a more competitive America?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
President Barack Obama and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt visit the birthplace of the General Electric Co., in Schenectady, N.Y., to showcase a new GE deal with India and to announce a restructured presidential advisory board Friday.

President Obama on Friday called for a new effort to put the economy into job-creation "overdrive," naming General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head an advisory panel on the issue.

Neither the president nor Mr. Immelt can claim to hold any magic formula for jobs, but the move does appear to bolster one key White House goal: mending frayed relations with corporate America.

The selection of Immelt, one of America's most prominent chief executive officers, comes after Mr. Obama has convened a CEO summit, pledged a looser regulatory hand, and made other moves designed to persuade employers that they should start hiring and investing in the US again.

"The economy is in a different place" than two years ago, Obama told workers at a GE plant in Schenectady, N.Y. But, though the economy is again growing after a deep recession, the president acknowledged that "it's not growing fast enough yet."

Faster private-sector job creation holds the key to bringing down unemployment and restoring paychecks to about 8 million Americans whose jobs disappeared during the recession.

The panel Immelt chairs will be called the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a successor to the Economic Recovery Advisory Board that was chaired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

"Immelt understands first-hand what it means to grow a business and create jobs," said a Friday statement by John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, which represents some of the largest US companies. "We thank President Obama for his excellent choice, and we will work closely with Immelt and the rest of the Council to enact the proposals we need to put Americans back to work, boost demand and get our economy moving again.”

Obama held up exports as a core goal, arguing that for a decade the US economy has relied too heavily on debt-financed consumption by its own citizens.

"[Overseas is] where the customers are, it's that simple," Obama said. "We're going back to Thomas Edison's principles.... We're going to build stuff and invent stuff."

Inventor Edison was a founding father of GE. The Schenectady plant now makes power-generating turbines that the company markets globally, including a recent sale in India.

How much can the Immelt-headed panel achieve?

For the economy, it might yield some new job-creation proposals that enjoy bipartisan support. At the least, to the degree that it improves business perceptions of the Obama administration, it could help nudge employers toward hiring.

For Obama politically, it might help him build credentials as a centrist after two years in which many Americans have viewed him as being to the left of their own views. On the negative side, the selection of Immelt might bolster perceptions of an administration ready to cozy up to the biggest businesses, whose interests don't always mesh with those of ordinary Americans.

By contrast, Mr. Volcker, who is officially departing as a key administration adviser, was known for his willingness to differ sharply with Wall Street powerbrokers.

To critics of Immelt's selection, his role opens the door to potential conflicts of interest. GE's future profits are intertwined with government policies in the US and elsewhere. It makes equipment used in energy, infrastructure, health care, and defense. On Wednesday, when Obama sang the praises of export-related contracts that US firms have won in China recently, GE deals figured prominently.

Still, economists say growing exports – for GE and other firms – are one vital way for the US to grow jobs.

In his remarks Friday, Obama said US firms are "on track" to achieve his goal of doubling exports in a five-year period.

Even in a best-case scenario for exports, America will need lots of other jobs, as well. Obama and the Immelt panel will consider broader economic policies such as ensuring that US workers maintain competitive skills.

The Obama administration has also begun exploring the possibility of an overhaul of the tax code, a move aimed in part at making America more competitive with other nations as a place to locate factories and offices. And earlier this week, Obama issued an executive order designed to weed out unnecessary rules and regulations that hinder job creation.

The US Chamber of Commerce issued a statement Friday calling the president's new council "promising."

“The ultimate test will not be the administration’s words and intentions, but its actions," Chamber president Thomas Donohue said. "A more robust economy and stronger job growth will require regulatory restraint and reform, trade expansion, reducing deficits, reining in spending, strengthening our education system, and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure."

Obama's moves to repair ties with business don't mean that private-sector employers have ceased to have concerns about the administration.

For example, when Obama described his efforts to reduce red tape (writing on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal), he didn't pledge to cease and desist from all new regulations. Some business leaders worry that an expected move by the Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon emissions could impose damaging costs on the economy.

Also, where Obama is working to fend off Republican attacks on his health-care reforms, some small-business leaders praise Republicans efforts to overturn the law. The National Federation of Independent Business said recently that the law isn't curbing health-care costs.

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