In an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Ann Curry that aired Tuesday, President Barack Obama addressed the notion that he is unemotional about the human toll that the economic crisis has taken.
“I think ordinary folks understand I spend all my time thinking about this stuff, because I’m talking to these folks every single day,’’ he said. “When I see them at meetings, and they start crying, the notion, somehow, that I’m calm about that, is nonsense. But what is true is that as president, my job is to make sure that I am finding every good idea that we can to move the country forward.’’
That was one of many economy-related topics that the president discussed with Curry, along with his opinions on embattled Rep. Anthony Weiner and potentially increasing the debt ceiling. Curry interviewed the president in Durham, N.C., where he was meeting with the Jobs and Competitiveness Council at the corporate and U.S. manufacturing headquarters of Cree, a manufacturer of energy-efficient LED lighting.
When it comes to the psychological pain that joblessness, bankruptcy, hunger and homelessness have taken on the citizenry, Obama said he understood the emotional component and that he will be ultimately be judged on whether concrete strides are made in correcting the situation.
The success of investments in clean energy, better job training at the college level, tax cuts for small businesses and the elimination of outdated regulations are all programs that will go toward determining whether the administration is successful in combating the economic crisis, he said.
“You know, if what we do works, and people see progress and feel a sense that it’s making a difference, then they are going to respond, and they’re going to feel more confident,’’ he said. “But until they actually see some difference in their lives, they’re going to continue to be frustrated, and so am I.’’
Curry pressed the president on the issue of corporations enjoying record profits while the unemployment rate remains at 9.1 percent. Instead of hiring more people, businesses have spent 26 percent more in equipment, according to a recent New York Times report. The question remains whether there has been a structural shift that allows companies to produce record profits by employing smaller work forces.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of me being unable to convince them to hire more people,’’ Obama said. “You know, they’re not making decisions based on what I say to them. They’re making decisions based on what they think will be good for their companies.’’
Challenges in job creation
The president noted that job creation is not happening fast enough to match the amount of jobs that were wiped out during the height of the recession.
Increased efficiencies in certain sectors have meant that a smaller work force can produce the same or more than a larger work force, according to Obama, so the emphasis has to be on developing new industries and identifying jobs that will not be made obsolete by better technology. He cited the steel industry as one example where efficiency has thinned the work force, but there is still room to compete because the high energy price of transporting goods from China to the United States has helped the U.S. industry despite lower labor costs in China.
“The challenge, though, is it only takes 100 workers to make what it used to take 1,000 workers to make in terms of the amount of steel,’’ he said. “So that’s why we’re going to have to look at new industries, and encourage entrepreneurs to invest in these new industries, and make sure that our workers have the skills to train them.
“For us to employ the same numbers of workers as we need to, to get the unemployment rate down, we’ve got to look at new sectors, new markets. We’ve got to do more exporting. So one of my big areas of focus has been on increasing exports.’’
The payroll tax cut and the acceleration of business depreciation that were passed in December are beginning to have an effect, according to the president, but more ideas are necessary to put more Americans back to work after creating 2 million jobs in the last 15 months. Certainly part of that is convincing corporations to hire more people, and the president cited the creation of more jobs in the embattled auto industry as one positive example of that. However, with developments like high gas prices, the debt limit issue, credit card debt and the loss of home equity affecting citizens, businesses are not moving fast enough to invest in human capital.
“A lot of businesses out there, I think, want to invest,’’ he said. “They recognize that just sitting on that money is not doing a lot of good. Businesses have been more hesitant than I’d like them to be.
“The interesting thing is when I talk to businesses right now — they’re actually more optimistic about the economic prospects than a lot of the reports that we’ve seen lately in the press. They feel as if we’re moving in a pretty good direction, but they also recognize we’ve got to accelerate hiring in order for this recovery to fully take.’’
With corporate growth not being matched by job creation, Curry questioned the president on whether he missed an important opportunity by focusing more on the health care crisis than job creation early in his administration.
“Everything I thought about over the first two years was, how do we get the economy back on track?’’ Obama said. “That’s what we focused on then, and that’s what we focus on now, but health care is part of our challenge. If companies are spending billions of dollars on rising health care costs, that’s money that they’re not putting into hiring the workers, or new plants, or equipment.’’
Obama also discussed the challenge of putting people to work with government-created programs aimed at ramping up improvements to infrastructure like roads, water systems and ports while simultaneously trying to reduce the daunting national debt.
“How do we make sure that government is living within its means, because part of the uncertainty that’s out there is people not sure whether Washington can get its act together,’’ he said. “Democrats and Republicans are willing to compromise for a balanced approach to starting to bring down our debt over the medium and long term. So it’s a little bit of trying to apply the brakes, and tap[ping] on the accelerator at the same time. That’s a challenge.’’
The president also offered his opinion in the ongoing scandal involving Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, who admitted to sending explicit photos of himself to women online.
“I can tell you that if it was me, I would resign,’’ Obama told Curry.
Weiner has been the talk of the nation since he was caught sending lewd photos of himself to various women on Twitter and Facebook, causing the head of the Democratic National Party to publicly call for him to step down and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to demand an ethics committee investigation.
“When you get to the point where, because of various personal distractions, you can’t serve as effectively as you need to, at the time when people are worrying about jobs, and their mortgages and paying the bills — then you should probably step back,’’ Obama said.
Obama added that Weiner has “embarrassed himself” and his wife and family, but did not go as far as stating that Weiner should resign. He said it will ultimately come down to a decision by Weiner and his constituents as to whether he will continue in office, but made it clear that if the shoe were on the other foot, he would resign.
“I know that for me, if I didn’t think I could do the job as well as I need to, then it’d be time for me to go.’’
Obama did not speak to Sen. Patty Murray, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, before she publicly called for Weiner to resign. While the president understands why the scandal has generated so much attention, he admitted that it was behind joblessness, the economy and Afghanistan on his radar right now.
The president also spoke with Curry about the upcoming battle with Republicans over possibly increasing the debt ceiling.
“I take the Republican leadership at their word when they say it would be disastrous for us to not increase the debt limit,’’ he said. “I do not want to see the United States default on our obligations.
“The full faith and credit of the United States is the underpinning not only of our way of life, it’s also the underpinning of a global financial system. We could actually have a reprise of a financial crisis, if we play this too close to the line. So we’re going be working hard over the next month. My expectation is we’re going get it done in a sensible way. That’s what the American people expect.’’
Obama noted how he has already proposed a freeze on federal spending and that there are some programs that “under any circumstances probably don’t work or don’t make sense for us to invest in.’’ However, he added that he does not want deep spending cuts at the expense of important programs.
“The question is do we do so in a way that’s balanced, in a way that ensures that we still have the best airports [and] the best roads in the world,’’ he said. “That we still have the best school systems and universities in the world. That says that we’re still protecting our seniors and our most vulnerable citizens if they really, really need help.
“I think that where it’s going to get tough is, right now Republicans are very resistant to any kind of revenue, and would rather see us make some sacrifices [on] programs that the vast majority of American people think are really important.’’