Nothing is more pressing this Labor Day than for President Barack Obama and Republican leaders to come together on a plan for putting Americans back to work. Friday's dismal jobs report raises the ante for Obama to lay out a bold agenda in his address to Congress on Thursday. Having squandered the summer (and the nation's credit rating) in a protracted and bitter fight over spending, Washington has to get serious about creating jobs, growing the economy and turning around the nation's finances.
The country will not recover from the housing bubble, the financial services collapse and the resulting recession until tens of millions of Americans displaced from the work force are able to draw a paycheck again. Obama gets it. But the president has yet to make a clear and compelling case that the nation — despite all the legitimate concern about the mounting federal debt — cannot cut its way to recovery as Republicans contend. The surest and most responsible way to get the economy working again, reviving the tax base while curbing discretionary spending on social welfare programs, is to put Americans to work.
For the short term, Obama should propose extending the payroll tax cut that is scheduled to expire this year. That puts about $1,000 into the hands of the average worker, money that flows quickly and continually through the economy. The proposal forces a put-up-or-shut-up moment for Republicans, whose desire to cut taxes is matched only by their commitment to frustrate the president in his runup for re-election.
The president also should call on Congress to reauthorize a multiyear highway spending program. Rebuilding the nation's roads, bridges and airports will not only put tens of thousands of hard-hit contractors to work. It will lay a foundation to save people and businesses billions of dollars in energy costs, grow the nation's cities, and attract investment in clean-technology and other emerging industries. A national infrastructure bank could take these investments a step further by creating closer partnerships between the government and the private sector.
The tone and substance of Obama's speech and Congress' response need to match the urgency of the moment. The Labor Department reported Friday that employment was flat in August, leaving the jobless rate at 9.1 percent. The horizon looks hardly better. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the unemployment rate will drop to only 8.5 percent by the end of 2012 and remain above 8 percent until 2014. Payroll, earnings, productivity and consumer confidence are all down. The share of young people working over the summer was the lowest since the government started keeping track in 1948. An American without a job has stayed without a job twice as long in the last six years. Washington needs to wake up to the crisis before the nation plunges into another recession.
The stakes are particularly high for America's fourth-largest state. As the St. Petersburg Times' Robert Trigaux reported last week, Florida has suffered a net loss of 26,596 businesses in the last two years, the most of any state. An ambitious jobs plan is essential for reversing Florida's jobless rate, already higher than the national average. Any further delay will only worsen the state's ability to compete. Obama needs to use his speech to channel the concerns of ordinary Americans, who have always equated jobs with prosperity.