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Obama hopes to keep economy in national spotlight

Obama hopes to keep economy in national spotlight
Obama hopes to keep economy in national spotlight

Remember when political leaders would occasionally talk about the economy as an important national issue? Sure, it's been a while, but the White House announced yesterday President Obama hopes to remind folks about the economy with "a campaign-style tour to promote middle-class economic growth with a series of events," starting this week in Austin.

"The President's trip will be similar to previous 'White House to Main Street' events that directly engage the American people and effectively pushed Congress to act," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement. "Things are getting better, but our economic recovery is not as strong as it could be and far too many middle class families are still struggling. The question is, will Congress will join with the President to make sure the middle class is strong and secure." [...]In his statement, Earnest took a preemptive swipe at Republican critics, saying "even though some in Congress are determined to create more self-inflicted economic wounds, there are things Washington could be doing right now to help American businesses, schools and workers."

A White House aide added yesterday, "There's a lot on Congress's plate. We also want to make sure part of the discussion includes a conversation about the economy."

Imagine that.

The good news is, the economy is improving, albeit slowly. As we discussed on Friday, the latest job numbers were encouraging and unemployment is at its lowest point in more than four years. Job creation in the month of February was the strongest seen in the U.S. in eight years. (I'll look forward to Republicans explaining how it's possible that a month after "job-killing" tax hikes took effect, job creation soared.)

The better news is, if Congress wants to strengthen the economic recovery, there are easy and obvious steps it could take. For example, Congress could stop punching us in the face, dragging down the economy on purpose.

This simple concept would include congressional Republicans ending their vow to crash the economy deliberately unless they get their way on the debt ceiling, and it might also include ending the incredibly stupid sequestration cuts.

Facing the task of cutting 142 children from the Head Start program in Colorado Springs this fall, the teachers and administrators came up with a creative response: Have the children decorate empty chairs, then sell them for $500 apiece to stave off the worst of the across-the-board federal cuts heading their way. So far, in a month, their "Fill a Seat" fund-raiser has filled just two slots in the program. [...]The $85 billion in federal budget cuts known as sequestration are beginning to be felt far from the nation's capital, like at a Head Start program in Pejepscot, Me., that is being closed and a cancer center in Birmingham, Ala., that is looking at layoffs. Kidney patients are losing their free transportation to dialysis centers in Stark County, Ohio, and flood gauges are being shut down on the Red River in North Dakota.

We know exactly what's stepping on the economic recovery, and it's us -- or more accurately, the people we elected to ostensibly serve our interests.

Michael Kelly let go of another employee last month. As chief executive of a small Michigan military contractor, Nanocerox, he had already cut his work force by one-third. But it was not enough. And if the government spending cuts mandated by Congress continue, he said, more people will go in the coming months.The squeeze Mr. Kelly is facing is one reason markets are jittery about what the Labor Department's latest report on unemployment and job creation will reveal about the economy on Friday. After a strong start to the year, several economic indicators beginning in March have pointed to much slower growth, largely because of the fiscal headwinds from Washington, economists say.

Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial in Chicago, added, "What's the biggest drag on the economy? The government. If the government simply did no harm, we could be at escape velocity."

It's heartbreaking to realize that if Congress simply did nothing, we'd be significantly better off than we are now. If they did some of the basics -- say, allow government investments and public-sector employment to keep pace with the Bush/Cheney era -- we'd be vastly better off. Instead, Congress has approved austerity measures that serve as an anchor, dragging us down.

It's a point I hope Obama mentions in Austin on Thursday.