President Barack Obama says America's sharply contracting economy underscores the need for swift action to create jobs and spur growth. At the White House Friday, Mr. Obama launched a task force focusing on the needs of the nation's middle class.
One day after news that the number of Americans receiving jobless benefits has reached a record high, the Commerce Department reported the U.S. economy shrank at a 3.8 percent annual rate in the last three months of 2008. It was the sharpest contraction in more than a quarter century, and yet another sign of the dire economic conditions confronting Barack Obama at the start of his presidency.
"This is a continuing disaster for America's working families," he said.
Mr. Obama said the deepening recession - now more than a year in duration - is affecting every sector of the economy.
"Families making fewer purchases, businesses making fewer investments, employers sustaining fewer jobs," he said. "The recession is deepening, and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing."
The president once again urged swift congressional passage of his economic recovery plan, currently under consideration in the Senate.
But he said the $800-plus billion package of tax cuts and federal spending is not sufficient to restore America's economic vitality. Mr. Obama said a multi-pronged approach is needed, including a concerted effort to resuscitate America's ailing middle class.
"We know we need to create jobs, but not just any jobs," he said. "We need to create jobs that sustain families and sustain dreams. Jobs in new and growing industries. Jobs that do not feel like a dead end, but a way forward and a way up. Jobs that will foster a vibrant and growing middle class."
To that end, the president unveiled his administration's Task Force on Middle Class Working Families, aimed at raising living standards for wage and salary earners. Specific goals include expanding educational opportunities, strengthening labor standards, and protecting retirement income.
Joining Mr. Obama for the event was Vice President Joe Biden, who will head the task force. Biden said America's middle class was struggling long before the overall economy turned sour.
"Even when our economy was growing, and there was very solid ground on which to build, the middle class found itself slipping," he said. "Productivity went up almost 20 percent between 2000 and 2007, yet income for working families fell by two thousand dollars a year. And now with our economy struggling, the pain is significantly worse."
U.S. labor leaders immediately hailed the task force. America's largest business federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had no immediate comment saying it was carefully reviewing the initiative.
At the close of the event, President Obama signed executive orders strengthening labor standards for private contractors that work on federal projects.