Prevent economic ‘disaster’

'The recession is deepening, and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing,' Mr Obama said at an event also highlighting the launch of a 'Middle Class Task Force'.

The Straits Times

PRESIDENT Barack Obama warned on Friday that grim data showing a deepening recession revealed a 'continuing disaster' for US workers and meant Congress must act immediately on his economic stimulus plan.

Disappearing jobs, home foreclosures and evaporating college and retirement savings were adding up to 'the American dream in reverse,' the president warned.

'This isn't just an economic concept, this is a continuing disaster for America's working families,' Mr Obama said before signing measures reversing several Bush administration policies curtailing trade union rights.

The president spoke after the release of government data showing that the US economy contracted in the fourth quarter of 2008 at the fastest pace since 1982, with a 3.8 per cent rate of decline.

'The recession is deepening, and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing,' Mr Obama said at an event also highlighting the launch of a 'Middle Class Task Force' under Vice President Joe Biden.

'I'm pleased that the House has acted with the urgency necessary in passing this plan. I hope we can strengthen it further in the Senate.

'What we can't do is drag our feet or delay much longer. The American people expect us to act, and that's exactly what I intend to do as president of the United States.'

The House of Representatives passed an US$819 billion (S$1.2 trillion) version of the stimulus plan this week, but without hoped-for Republican support. The Senate is expected to start debating the measure next week.

At his daily briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked whether Mr Obama's plain spoken rhetoric at the state of the economy risked further depressing confidence and hopes of recovery.

'I think it's kind of hard to sugarcoat and spin an economy that shrank at a faster rate in any quarter except – or since 1982,' he said.

'I think what the American people also want to see is somebody who will level with them about the challenges that we face, and will give them a sense of where he hopes to take them.

'But I don't think he can do that if he is continually telling people that things are different than what they know to be true in their everyday daily lives.'

Biden said his task force would work across government agencies to quickly frame policies to improve the lot of the hurting middle classes which he portrayed as the backbone of US prosperity.

'America's middle class is hurting. Trillions of dollars in home equity and retirement savings and college savings are gone,' Mr Biden said.

'Every day, more and more Americans are losing their jobs. President Obama and I are determined to change this. Quite simply, a strong middle class equals a strong America. We can't have one without the other.'

Mr Obama signed a series of executive orders giving new rights to union members and people who work for government contractors.

The measures will make federal contractors offer jobs to current workers when contracts end and reverse a Bush-era order forcing contractors to post a notice telling workers they can limit financial support to unions.

The third order prevents government contractors from being reimbursed for expenses incurred in activities intended to influence workers against forming a union or taking part in collective bargaining.

On Thursday, Mr Obama signed a new law making it easier for women to sue their employers for pay discrimination.

The president said he believed 'we have to reverse many of the policies towards organised labour that we have seen these last eight years.'

'I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem.

'To me, it's part of the solution.'

Mr Obama's moves won strong support from the labour movement, a key constituency in the Democratic Party's power base.

'It is a new day for workers,' said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa who attended the ceremony in the East Room of the presidential mansion.

'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.'

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has more than 1.4 million members in the transportation, freight and related industries in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.