President Barack Obama launched a push on Friday ahead of congressional elections to refocus on economic recovery efforts that have been overshadowed by the BP Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Traveling to the recession-battered Midwest, Obama kicked off what the White House has billed as a six-week drive to promote his administration’s economic stimulus plan and job policies.
With public anxiety over the fragile economy threatening Obama’s Democrats in November’s congressional elections, gaining traction for his domestic agenda could be critical. Republicans are aiming to take control of Congress from the Democrats.
Obama touted the $787 billion stimulus package he pushed through Congress last year for putting the overall economy on firmer footing and boosting jobs, but acknowledged that not everyone was feeling the benefits.
“Businesses are beginning to hire again,” Obama said at a ground-breaking for a stimulus-funded road project. “Our economy, which was shrinking by 6 percent when I was sworn in, is now growing at a good clip.”
However, he added, “I’m under no illusion that we’re where we need to be yet.”
Obama said too many people in Ohio and across the country still cannot find work and “many more can’t make ends meet.”
His visit to Ohio, a presidential election battleground state, came at the end of a week dominated by fallout from the nearly two-month-old BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst in U.S. history.
Obama had been expected to devote much of his attention this summer to rebuilding the economy and pushing through Congress major legislation overhauling Wall Street regulations and reshaping the U.S. energy sector.
But the oil spill has placed heavy demands on his time and swallowed up vast amounts of his administration’s resources. He delivered a nationally televised speech to mixed reviews on Tuesday, then squeezed concessions from BP on Wednesday to create a $20 billion fund to cover damage claims.
So far, Obama’s public approval ratings have mostly held up — still at around 50 percent — despite criticism from many people that he was late in showing leadership in the crisis.
Obama’s challenge now is to prove to Americans that he can tackle the oil spill disaster while not being distracted from top policy priorities.
Nearly double-digit U.S. unemployment remains at the top of voter concerns, even as the economy has moved onto the path to recovery after a deep recession. Gross national product has increased in the past three quarters.
But the labor market has lagged behind. U.S. unemployment stood at 9.7 percent last month and the private sector generated a disappointing 41,000 new jobs.
Obama’s visit to the Columbus construction site — which the White House called the 10,000th road project funded by the 2009 stimulus package — was meant to showcase the impact of the measure that he credits with spurring economic recovery.
Many economists say the measure helped avert an even-worse crisis. Republicans opposed Obama’s stimulus plan and continue to criticize it as a wasteful government overreach.
With the mid-term election campaign gathering pace, Obama has charged that Republicans who originally tried to block his economic policies are now trying to capitalize on the results.
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