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Obama's 'Shovel-Ready' Joke Draws Criticism, Corrections

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President Obama speaks at the beginning of a meeting with the Jobs and Competitiveness Council June 13 in Durham, N.C. (AP)

The White House defended its record Tuesday on the stimulus after facing a heap of criticism over President Obama's joke a day earlier that "shovel-ready" projects in the stimulus bill weren't so shovel-ready after all. 

The president's wisecrack came during a meeting in North Carolina with his jobs council. After hearing concerns about how the permitting process delays construction, Obama smiled and said: "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected." 

The joke -- a reference to the pitch used by the Obama administration to push the stimulus plan in 2009 -- elicited chuckles from other members of the jobs council. 

But Republicans weren't laughing Tuesday, noting that unemployment is higher now than when Obama signed the stimulus.

"I don't think it's a joke to the millions of Americans who find themselves unemployed," House Speaker John Boehner said. 

On Tuesday, the administration said despite the joke, the shovel-ready projects met the administration's goals. 

An administration official cited an internal report from last fall saying the stimulus program had met its goal of having 70 percent of its funding "outlayed and delivered in tax relief" by the end of September. Further, the report said the program "met every spending deadline Congress set" for obligating stimulus dollars. 

Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at the time that while some projects did not start as quickly as hoped, more than 75,000 "job-creating projects" ultimately got off the ground. 

The latest administration statistics show that as of early June, 75 percent of contracts, grants and loans through the stimulus have been paid out.

Last summer, the administration claimed the $830 billion stimulus plan "saved or created" 3.6 million jobs. Though such a claim would be impossible to verify, the shovel-ready projects did not prevent the unemployment from pitching skyward. 

The administration had pledged the stimulus would keep unemployment below 8 percent. But the jobless rate has gone from 8.2 percent when Obama signed the stimulus in early 2009 to 9.1 percent last month. The number of employed people in the United States has also fallen by nearly 2 million since that time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

A new Gallup poll shows confidence in the U.S. economy plunging, dipping below where it was one year ago. Given this and other recent economic data, Republicans seized on the president's comment.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a 2012 presidential candidate who hammered Obama's economic record at a debate Monday night, singled out Obama's joke in a section of his campaign website -- calling it a "hollow" attempt at humor. 

House Republican Leader Eric Cantor's office also blasted out a string of emails.

"The nation needs serious pro-growth solutions from the president ... not jokes," Cantor's office said, pointing to one report that showed small business owners growing more pessimistic and two-thirds of them saying it's a bad time to expand. The information came from the National Federation of Independent Business.