DURHAM, N.C. — President Obama sounded agreeable to any and all job-creation proposals Monday - even curbing litigation by environmentalists - as he met with his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness here to field suggestions from industry leaders.
“The sky is not falling,” Mr. Obama said of the stagnating economy. “We are a people who dream big, even when times are tough.”
As if keenly aware that his political fate is tied to the economy, Mr. Obama told a group of high-tech workers, “As long as I have the privilege of being your president, I’m going to be right there with you.”
Although the president heard a variety of proposals for spurring private industry to hire more employees, there was nothing immediate in the offing that is likely to ease the nation’s unemployment rate, which rose to 9.1 percent in May. Mr. Obama told GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, who heads the council, to make sure formal proposals reach his desk “as quickly as possible.” Among them is a plan to educate 10,000 more engineering students per year with private investment, which Mr. Obama called his “all-hands-on-deck strategy.”
The president, on a two-day swing to North Carolina, Florida and Puerto Rico, toured a lighting-manufacturing firm, Cree Inc., to highlight the company’s development of clean-energy technology.
Among the suggestions Mr. Obama heard from his jobs council was a proposal to limit lawsuits against construction projects during the permitting process. Mr. Obama has come under fire from business leaders for burdening industry with greater regulations and costs, but he seemed agreeable to the proposal.
“There’s a way for us to maintain our environmental standards - but not just add layer upon layer of bureaucracy,” Mr. Obama said.
Cree received $39 million in tax credits from the 2009 Recovery Act to develop clean-energy technology. It purchased new equipment and hired nearly 750 more workers in North Carolina’s famed “research triangle,” where it manufactures environmentally friendly LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs.
Then late in 2010 the firm opened its first manufacturing plant in Huizhou, China. Cree CEO Chuck Swoboda said at the time that more than half of the company’s employees were living in China. The move prompted some conservative critics to claim Cree is a poor example of a stimulus success story, arguing the firm is borrowing money from China, financed by U.S. taxpayers, to create jobs in China.
The president took his job-creation listening tour on the road as evidence grows that the administration’s $821 billion stimulus program has run out of steam. The unemployment rate in May inched up to 9.1 percent, and manufacturers cut 5,000 jobs, the first drop in that sector in seven months.
The Dow Jones industrial average dropped below 12,000 last week for the first time since March. It was the sixth straight week of declines, the Dow’s longest losing streak since 2002.
Housing prices have plunged to their lowest level since 2003, with a backlog of more foreclosures ready to hit the market.
The White House arranged for the jobs event in a key battleground state that Mr. Obama barely won in 2008 and needs to capture again next year. Democrats will hold their national convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September 2012.
The states hosting Mr. Obama on Monday are examples of how the weak economy is threatening his re-election strategy. The jobless rate in North Carolina is 9.7 percent, above the national rate of 9.1 percent. In Florida, another crucial state where the president is holding three fundraisers Monday night, the unemployment rate is 10.8 percent.
No incumbent president since World War II has been re-elected with the national unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent. With congressional Republicans adamant that the president join them in cutting spending, the event in Durham, N.C., shows how Mr. Obama is increasingly dependent on big business to loosen up their cash reserves for hiring.
The Obama administration is “looking for ideas from every quarter,” presidential spokesman Jay Carney said. The White House Monday renewed its pledge to cut government red tape.
Last week, Mr. Obama unveiled an effort by the National Association of Manufacturers with colleges and the private sector to help half a million college students receive training and certification for manufacturing jobs.
Senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said the event in North Carolina was part of the administration’s effort to persuade “the private sector to really carry the ball” in creating more jobs. She said many of the proposals “can be done without requiring government subsidies.”
“The president has charged the jobs council with a fierce sense of urgency to help try to address this issue quickly,” she said.
Mr. Obama formed the jobs council three months ago, calling on business leaders and labor chiefs to brainstorm on ways to promote job growth.
Republican leaders in Congress say the president could promote job growth by passing pending free-trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The administration and its union allies are insisting that these pacts be linked with renewal of aid for displaced workers.
Ms. Jarrett said National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling has been working hard to get a deal through Congress, but she didn’t indicate any change in the administration’s position.