With unemployment numbers finally inching in the right direction, President Obama announced a broad new spending strategy Tuesday that he hopes can grow this economic "green shoot" into green jobs.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution following a White House jobs summit and a trip through Pennsylvania steel country, Obama outlined ideas for a new federal stimulus that would focus largely on small businesses and greener infrastructure projects, such as energy systems, as well as new financial incentives for people to retrofit their homes for energy efficiency.
It would involve a holistic approach that would take into account the effects of robust education, health care and financial systems on the country's economic well-being, the president said.
"We cannot go back to an economy that yielded cycle after cycle of speculative booms and painful busts," Obama said.
"We cannot continue to accept an education system in which our students trail their peers in other countries, and a health care system in which exploding costs put our businesses at a competitive disadvantage. And we cannot continue to ignore the clean energy challenge or cede global leadership in the emerging industries of the 21st century."
Obama said his plans would both "meet the crisis of the moment" and lay "a new foundation for the future." The crisis of the moment is the current economic recession, but the problem Obama is trying to address is a much broader, much older one whose causes run deeper.
The president on Monday visited Allentown, Pa., a town synonymous with shuttered factories since the 1982 Billy Joel song. The theme of unemployment in places like western Pennsylvania was already immortalized by songs such as Bob Dylan's "North Country Blues" and countless folk songs before it.
Labor and environmental groups welcomed the president's approach to rebuilding the economy in a way that might help mitigate unemployment in the more distant future as well as in the present and revitalize the entire nation. Nationally, the unemployment rate had reached 10.2 percent in October before falling to 10 percent in November.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke Monday of a "transition to a greener economy" that would entail the modernization of industry, new technology and workers' skill sets. Following Tuesday's speech, he said he is "encouraged that President Obama and his team are proposing many of the same steps that we see as the most promising, efficient routes to job creation."
These steps include rebuilding major infrastructure such as roads, school and "energy systems," Obama said.
The president proposed "a boost in investment in the nation's infrastructure beyond what was included in the Recovery Act."
"By design, Recovery Act work on roads, bridges, water systems, Superfund sites, broadband networks and clean energy projects will all be ramping up in the months ahead," he said.
He also outlined a new program that would provide financial incentives for consumers to retrofit their home to become more energy efficient. It's the sort of project that "we know creates jobs, saves money for families, and reduces the pollution that threatens our environment," he said.
Whether the incentives program can actually become a green jobs dynamo remains to be seen.
Edward Mazria, who has worked on reducing building sector greenhouse gas emissions as founder of Architecture 2030, argues that the proposal doesn't go far enough. The final savings to consumers from an incentive to retrofit would not be "worth the hassle" to the homeowners, nor would it do much to reverse the loss of construction jobs, he said.
"Infrastructure projects depend on tax revenue, and the generator of tax revenue is the private sector, which has been devastated," Mazria said. "Funding infrastructure projects with stimulus funds simply substitutes federal dollars for tax revenue dollars."
Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope sees more potential.
"Already many organizations and unions are training Americans and putting them to work retrofitting homes and buildings to make them more energy efficient. The Sierra Club is partnering with several unions to get out the word on training programs that have already retrofitted many homes across the U.S. — putting people to work, lowering energy bills for families, and fighting global warming," Pope said.
Obama also proposed "that we expand select Recovery Act initiatives to promote energy efficiency and clean energy jobs which have proven particularly popular and effective." These initiatives would include areas like the manufacturing of wind turbines and solar panels.
The clean energy proposals were mixed in with improvements in areas like health and education. He called, for instance, for a doubling of the U.S.'s renewable energy capacity in addition to modernizing medical records systems and classrooms and "upgrading roads and railways as part of the largest investment in infrastructure since the creation of the Interstate Highway System half a century ago."
At least some of the money for these proposals is expected to come from remaining funds in TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program launched by the Bush administration to bailout foundering banks. So-called "deficit hawks" on Capitol Hill would rather use that money to pay down the national debt, however, and some of the president's initiatives will need congressional approval.
But Obama believes his plans to create jobs are fiscally responsible:
"Ensuring that economic growth and job creation are strong and sustained is critical to ensuring that we are increasing revenues and decreasing spending on things like unemployment so that our deficits will start coming down," the president said.
The plans he outlined hopes to dig down to some of the basic foundations of the economy, like education and energy, and shore it up from there.
"Our economic future depends on our leadership in the industries of the future, we are investing in basic and applied research and working to create the incentives to build a new clean energy economy," he said.
"The question we'll have to answer now is if we are going to learn from our past, or if — even in the aftermath of disaster — we are going to repeat it."
(Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)