State of the Union Challenge: A Five-Year Jobs Plan

Isaiah J. Poole

The previews of President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday promise that job creation will be a major focus – a welcome development in the face of Washington’s debilitating and wrong-headed obsession with deficit-cutting. But what’s really important is that the boldness of the president’s agenda match the severity of the jobs crisis.

The reality faced by 22 million people seeking full-time work in today’s economy demands that President Obama use his State of the Union address to push the limits of the debate, including the limits of his own past proposals.

In an article to be featured in Tuesday morning’s Progressive Breakfast, co-director Robert Borosage calls for a five-year jobs program to be included in the State of the Union address. He does not spell out the details of what should be in that plan, but those who have followed his writing can imagine the broad outlines. What should also be clear is the goal: a full-employment economy.

That would mean getting the unemployment rate at least a percentage-point lower than the recent Congressional Budget Office projection of 5.5 percent unemployment in 2017. Doing that would require taking actions that would enable the economy grow much faster than the projections assumed by the CBO.

But that goal is well within reach. If we returned to the growth rates we experienced during the latter portion of the Clinton administration – about 4 percent a year – we could make up for all of the jobs lost as a result of the Great Recession and its aftermath by 2016.

Here President Obama would do well to take a page from the House Progressive Caucus, which last week offered a set of proposals that would help boost the economy and put people back to work. One proposal is an immediate $150 billion infrastructure investment program, plus an additional $10 billion in an infrastructure bank that would be used to finance state and local government initiatives and collaborations with the private sector.

A recent Texas A&M Transportation Institute study found that in 2011 traffic congestion on the nation’s roads alone cost the nation $121 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel. This is one of the silent costs of conservative congressional obstruction; the refusal to move forward on a plan to put people to work upgrading our transportation network and other assets is wasting billions of dollars and dragging down the economy.

In a similar vein, President Obama could once again call for a national school modernization program. A $25 billion program could modernize 35,000 public schools and would help keep thousands of teachers in the classroom that would otherwise be laid off by cash-strapped state and local governments. The president could add that while in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting there have been serious discussions about spending more money on school security, this is not the time to cut back on spending on the teachers, equipment and facilities students need to learn. In order to grow the economy and ensure our global competitiveness, we should be doing the opposite.

Add to this President Obama’s previous commitments to increase the growth of the nation’s manufacturing sector – which to be meaningful would mean taking on corporate outsourcing and the mercantilist practices of countries such as China – and we begin to have an adequate framework for the policy debate that our economic conditions actually demand.

The most important thing that needs to be fixed right now is the jobs deficit. Let’s see if President Obama effectively gets that message across in his State of the Union address. In any event, it will be up to us to push Congress to stop listening to the demands of the handful of well-heeled deficit hawks spending millions to convince our lawmakers to make the lives of economically struggling Americans even less secure, and turn our full attention to the 22 million Americans who are looking for a full-time job.

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