by David Stout / The New York Times / Published: January 30, 2009
WASHINGTON – On yet another morning of grim economic news, President Obama sought to further distance himself from his predecessor on Friday as he announced steps that he said would strengthen organized labor and improve the lot of middle-class Americans.
At a White House ceremony, the president signed three executive orders that he said would “reverse many of the policies towards organized labor that we’ve seen these last eight years, policies with which I’ve sharply disagreed.”
Soon afterward, Vice President Biden drew applause when he flung another dart at former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney (on Mr. Cheney’s 68th birthday) as he told labor officials in the audience, “Welcome back to the White House.”
Mr. Obama, following up on his Thursday condemnation of “shameful” bonuses for Wall Street bankers, seized on the latest economic numbers to push yet again for enactment of his $800 billion-plus economic stimulus package. He and Mr. Biden spoke not long after the nation’s gross domestic product reflected its greatest contraction in a quarter-century.
“So this is a difficult moment,” Mr. Obama said, “but I believe if we act boldly and swiftly it can be an American moment, when we work through our differences together and overcome our divisions to face this crisis.”
“While our G.D.P. may have grown smaller, it’s undiminished when it comes to our innovative spirit, our work ethic, our values and our resolve and resilience as Americans,” the president said.
The orders he signed, which union officials say will undo Bush administration policies that tilted toward employers, would require federal contractors to offer jobs to current workers when contracts change, and would make it more difficult for federal contractors to discourage union activities.
In addition, Mr. Biden said the first meeting of the previously announced task force “to bring together those Cabinet members who have the greatest impact on the well-being of the middle class” would be Feb. 27 in Philadelphia. The task force will look at issues as diverse as health care and college opportunities, Mr. Biden said, and will focus on “restoring the balance in the workplace.”
The task force will be led by Jared Bernstein, a prominent liberal economist who has been writing a study on the impact of Mr. Obama’s stimulus plan. The focus of the first meeting will be “green jobs, those jobs that pay well, can’t be outsourced and will help us move toward a cleaner, more self-sufficient energy future,” Mr. Biden said.
Future monthly meetings will be held across the country to discuss the mundane but essential concerns of working people like child care, workplace safety and retirement security, the vice president said. The administration has set up a Web site, AStrongMiddleClass.gov, that Mr. Biden said would tell people what their government was doing and invite them to share their thoughts.
The president and vice president did not precisely define the “middle class,” a term used in conversation and politics to describe aspirations as well as income levels. But it was clear that they were not speaking of the Wall Street people who shared in the enormous bonuses that Mr. Obama denounced on Thursday.
“These are the men and the women who form the backbone of our economy, the most productive workers in the world,” Mr. Obama said.
When Mr. Bush was president, he often used virtually identical language in describing American workers, but he generally emphasized entrepreneurship and small business more than Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden did today.
“I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem,” Mr. Obama said. “To me, it’s part of the solution.”
But the president said there need not be a conflict between “the interests of workers and the interests of shareholders,” and that American business and industry could be “lean and mean” and thus competitive in the global marketplace.
Mr. Biden said that, by lifting the middle class, the new administration would improve life for the poor – “and by the way, the wealthy do better as well. Everyone does better.”
Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Biden’s remarks pleased union leaders. “It’s a new day for workers,” said James P. Hoffa, the Teamsters president, who attended the White House ceremony. “We finally have a White House that is dedicated to working with us to rebuild our middle class. Hope for the American Dream is being restored.”