- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

President Obama took his economic pitch to Michigan Tuesday, telling residents suffering through the highest unemployment rate in the nation that he wants to invest $12 billion in community colleges that are focused on training programs for the “jobs of the future.”

Before leaving Washington to speak at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., Mr. Obama said he knows the national unemployment rate will climb past the current 9.5 percent rate and reach double digits.

Mr. Obama said that under his plan, 5 million more Americans would graduate from community colleges by 2020, which he said have been undervalued in the United States. He said he views the $12 billion as a “down payment” to be used to improve college facilities, expand online curricula and develop new courses.

The money for the “American Graduation Initiative” would come from ending government subsidies to banks and private lenders for student loans, a cost savings of “tens of billions” over the next decade, Mr. Obama said.

The American Council of Education called the plan “bold” and said it would go “a long way” toward helping the work force. Congressional Democrats issued similar praise for the plan, while Republicans were quiet.

Mr. Obama painted the nation’s economic problems as a “transformative moment” similar to when President Lincoln created land-grant colleges or to when the GI Bill passed to help veterans attend college. He said he wants to seize the tough times and prepare the country’s workers for new jobs.

He said the colleges would use the money to offer training to help people become health information technology workers or nurses, or for courses leading to skills that would help install solar panels or erect wind turbines.

The speech came after the White House released a report Monday showing jobs in the health care and environmental sectors are growing at a fast pace as the economy transforms.

The report, called “Preparing the Workers of Today for the Jobs of Tomorrow,” said the new jobs will require a boost in education and training programs. Mr. Obama also tackled the subject in a Washington Post editorial over the weekend.

But the speech backdrop also featured Republicans calling the $787 billion stimulus package a failure, saying it has not created enough jobs or at a fast-enough pace. More than 2 million jobs have been lost since Congress passed the package in February.

The nation’s 9.5 percent unemployment rate is its highest in 26 years. Mr. Obama, like most economists, expects the rate will reach 10 percent by the end of the year. Michigan has the highest rate at 14.1 percent, according to the Labor Department’s report for June.

Mr. Obama took aim at Republicans who have been blasting his administration for the record $1 trillion-plus deficit and other economic problems.

“I love these folks who helped get us in this mess and then suddenly say, well, this is Obama’s economy. That’s fine, give it to me,” he said. “My job is to solve problems, not to stand on the sidelines and harp and gripe.”

Obama policy aides said $9 billion of the administration’s proposal would be for challenge grants offering colleges funding for innovation and new programs and to help students complete community college programs before transferring to a four-year school, instead of dropping out. About $500 million would be for Internet courses.

Mr. Obama said the government also would back $10 billion in loans to renovate and modernize community college facilities.

c Joseph Weber contributed to this report.

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