WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama promised at a White House jobs forum on Thursday to take "every responsible step to accelerate job creation," including some ideas he said could be put into action quickly. He cited an expanded program to help make more U.S. homes energy-efficient as an example.
He also mentioned trade measures and possible new tax incentives among ways to stop job losses that are the worst since the 1930s.
"This has been a tough year, with a lot of uncertainty," Obama said as he wrapped up the half-day brainstorming session with more than 100 CEOs, academics, small business and union leaders and local officials. "There's no question that it's difficult out there right now,"
The president said there were some ideas that could be put to work almost immediately and other ideas that will become part of legislation for Congress to consider. He listed "moving forward on an aggressive agenda for energy efficiency and weatherization" as a prime candidate for quick action.
With unemployment levels above 10 percent, Obama said "We cannot hang back and hope for the best."
But, mindful of growing anxiety about federal deficits, Obama also tempered his upbeat talk with an acknowledgment that government resources could only go so far and that it is primarily up to the private sector to create large numbers of new jobs.
He said while he's "open to every demonstrably good idea ... we also though have to face the fact that our resources are limited."
In an interview with USA Today and the Detroit Free Press, the president rejected calls for a follow-on to the $787 billion economic recovery bill he signed into law shortly after taking office.
"It is not going to be possible for us to have a huge second stimulus, because frankly, we just don't have the money," Obama said.
Obama spoke a day before the Labor Department was to report unemployment figures for November. The October jobless level soared into double digits to 10.2 percent, and forecasters don't expect the November figures to be any better – and they could even be worse.
The president was expected to stay on topic with a Friday visit to economically distressed Allentown, Pa.
As Obama and participants focused on the big picture, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was more narrowly focused, telling reporters that Congress will tap unused funds from last year's $700 billion Wall Street bailout to pay for new spending on roads and bridges and save the jobs of firefighters, teachers and other public employees.
Pelosi didn't give a price tag on the initiative.
However, congressional Democrats who have talked with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other administration officials are eyeing up to $70 billion in funds, said a House Democratic aide who required anonymity to describe the private talks.
Obama opened the session by challenging participants to help him come up with innovative ideas for putting millions of Americans back to work, saying he wants the "biggest bang for the buck."
Then the guests broke into different working groups to brainstorm with administration officials.
Dropping in on a session on "Green Jobs of the Future," Obama said, "Not to tip our hand too much, but one of the things I would be surprised if we don't end up moving forward on is an aggressive agenda for energy efficiency and weatherization. Because that is an area where we can get it up and running relatively quickly. You don't need new technologies."
Obama told the group that clean energy was the nation's best candidate "if we are to shift from the bubble and bust model that we have. ... We want to make a push in this area."
He cited the success of the administration's Cash for Clunkers program, noting that car companies carried much of the marketing responsibilities that helped make the effort so popular. Home improvement companies like Home Depot would be key as partners in any future jobs program focusing on energy efficiencies, Obama told company chairman Frank Blake.
Obama also dropped in on a group looking at job creation tied to spending on the nation's aging infrastructure. He told participants he believed a number of "tensions" made development of green jobs difficult, including a struggle with Congress on legislation to combat global warming, the federal government's limited ability to invest the billions needed and the short-term push to create immediate jobs that might clash with long-term environmental initiatives.
The forum was kicked off by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who called the present unemployment rate "a stark reminder of how much we have to do." She said the administration "will not rest" until it had been successful at job creation.
Vice President Joe Biden also addressed an audience that included the CEOs of Google, Xerox, Boeing and General Electric, labor leaders and prominent economists and told them they were vital components in any strong recovery. "Without you, it will not become a reality," he said.
Perhaps unwittingly, Biden took the event a bit off-message at the start, painting a more dire picture of the nation's economy than typically heard out of the administration.
He recalled an old Ronald Reagan line that people see the problem as merely a downturn when a stranger is out of work and a recession if it's a relative who is unemployed – but a full-blown depression when they themselves lose a job.
"And it is a depression" for the nation's more than 10 million unemployed, Biden added
Obama said he'd heard some "exciting ideas and proposals" on how to spur hiring. He also said he welcomed the suggestions as well as some "good, hardheaded feedback" from some people who don't always share his views, including the former top economic adviser to 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who also addressed a rival GOP jobs forum earlier in the day.
Obama said. "Digging ourselves out of the hole we have dug into is not going to be easy."
Republicans invited mostly conservative economists to their competing round-table discussion on jobs.
At that session, Holtz-Eakin suggested the single best thing Obama could do to create jobs was "to reverse course on a dangerous agenda of debt-financed spending, crippling regulation, expensive mandates and intrusive government expansion."
Another person invited to the White House forum who was not a fan of the president during last year's campaign was Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of open source software company Red Hat.
But after sitting through his session, he was surprised how officials were asking business leaders for specifics.
"It really was trying to get some practical perspective on what of these things would work," Whitehurst said.
Whitehurst said he expected Obama would tell the nation in a speech on the economy on Tuesday that their first steps were to stabilize the economy and now the White House's economic team would focus on jobs, based on the rhetoric he heard repeatedly during his session.
Meanwhile, Obama rejected criticism from black members of Congress that he is ignoring the more dire economic problems of minorities. Blacks for instance have a much higher unemployment rate than the already high national average. The president said it would be wrong for him to focus narrowly on blacks or any other minority group.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Philip Elliott, Jennifer Loven, Joan Lowy, Brett J. Blackledge and Sam Hananel contributed to this report.