Obama Vows to Pivot to Jobs as Republicans Question Track Record

With the debt-ceiling debate in Washington's rear view, President Obama emerged from the partisan rubble vowing -- as he has many times since taking office -- to devote his energy to jobs.

Americans "want us to get this economy growing and adding jobs," the president said.

The call echoed his 2010 State of the Union pledge to make jobs his "No. 1 focus." But since then, the economy hasn't exactly popped back into gear.

Since January 2010, the unemployment rate has averaged about 9.4 percent. On average, the economy is creating about 94,000 jobs per month -- well below the at least 125,000 needed to keep pace with population growth. Not only is the jobless rate on the upswing, but those out of work are staying out of work longer. The jobless typically are out of work for nearly 40 weeks, which is 30 percent longer than in January 2010.

Republicans are on the same page as Democrats when it comes to the goal of spurring job creation. But the parties are no more unified on how to do that than they were on how to cut the deficit. While the president repeatedly has said that jobs will be his priority, Republicans say he's fumbled that push time and again.

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"Quit borrowing. Quit spending. Quit trying to raise taxes. Quit over-regulating and let the private sector flourish," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, as party leaders on each side offered two starkly different visions for the recovery.

The key to the GOP jobs message is "certainty." Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Washington policies fuel the "uncertainty" in the private sector and keep businesses from hiring. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Obama has "made it worse."

Republicans claim to want to take away the anxiety by reining in government, tackling spending, lowering tax rates, stripping regulations and whittling away at the federal health care overhaul to whatever extent they can -- plus, on the energy front, they repeated their cry for more domestic oil production.

Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor and Urban Institute fellow who used to work as a Labor Department economist, disputed the notion that the administration's policies have made things worse. He said the stimulus could have kept the jobless rate from rising even higher, though it is impossible to know. But he said the enormity of the economic crisis has made any government response tantamount to "spitting into the wind."

"When you have this kind of recession caused by the collapse of a financial bubble, it's always hard to recover from it," Holzer said. He said the nation's debt restrains what the U.S. government can spend on recovery, while the uncertainty in Europe and recurring "antics" in Washington make for a tentative business climate.

Democrats are offering their own prescription.While Obama wants to extend his temporary payroll tax cut for the middle class, he and his party's leaders reject many of the other Republican tenets on economic growth.

"If their theory was right, the huge taxes that took place during the Bush eight years -- the economy should be thriving," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. "These tax cuts have not helped the economy."

While vowing to deal with the deficit, Obama said economic growth "isn't just about cutting spending. It's not about rolling back regulations that protect our air and our water and keep our people safe. That's not how we're going to get past this recession."

The president urged Congress to act on several sidelined proposals, ranging from patent reform to new trade deals to what he describes as an "infrastructure bank" aimed at helping private companies repair U.S. roads and bridges and airports -- an idea Holzer called a "winner."

"We have workers who need jobs and a country that needs rebuilding. An infrastructure bank would help us put them together," Obama said. He also urged Congress to extend unemployment benefits.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also championed clean-energy investment as well as currency reform to bring countries like China back on a level playing field with other trading partners.

All those measures, though, will likely have to wait until lawmakers return to legislative session next month.