World and Nation

A Focus on Jobs, But No Promises Of a Turnaround

After months of focusing on Afghanistan and health care, President Barack Obama turned his attention on Thursday to the high level of joblessness, but offered no promise that he could do much to bring unemployment down quickly even as he comes under pressure from his own party to do more.

At a White House forum, scheduled for the day before the government releases unemployment and job loss figures for November, Obama sought new ideas from business executives, labor leaders, economists and others. Confronted with concern that his own ambitious agenda and the uncertain climate it has created among employers have slowed hiring, the president defended his policies.

Obama said he would entertain “every demonstrably good idea” for creating jobs, but he cautioned that “our resources are limited.”

The president said he would announce some new ideas of his own next week. One of those, he indicated when he participated in a discussion group on clean energy, would be a program of weatherization incentives for homeowners and small businesses modeled on the popular “cash for clunkers” program.

On Capitol Hill, Ben S. Bernanke PhD ’79, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, told senators at a sometimes testy hearing on his confirmation for a second term, “Jobs are the issue right now.”

“It really is the biggest challenge, the most difficult problem that we face right now,” Bernanke added, citing in particular the inability of many credit-worthy small businesses to get bank loans.

In the House, where lawmakers are particularly sensitive to the employment issue since they all face re-election next year, Democratic leaders on Thursday were finishing work on a jobs bill for debate this month. It would extend expiring federal unemployment benefits for people who have been out of jobs for long periods, and provide up $70 billion for roads and infrastructure projects and for aid to small business. House Democrats plan to pay for the plan by drawing from the $700 billion fund set up last year to bail out financial institutions.

The House also passed legislation on Thursday that would freeze the federal tax on large estates at its current level. Under current law, the tax would have disappeared entirely next year, only to reappear at much higher levels in 2011. The vote highlighted the raft of fiscal issues facing the administration and Congress and the tension between addressing budget deficits and taking potentially expensive actions to help the economy.

Obama’s jobs event captured the political and policy vise now squeezing the president and his party at the end of his first year. It came on the eve of a government report that is expected to show unemployment remaining in double digits, and two days after Obama emphasized as he ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan that he did not want the financial burdens of the war to overwhelm his domestic agenda.