Eager to show action on the ailing economy, President Barack Obama promised Monday to speed federal money into hundreds of public works projects this summer, vowing that 600,000 jobs will be created or saved.
Surrounded by his Cabinet, Obama emphasized what has become a dominant issue of public concern — an economy that keeps bleeding jobs — on the day after returning from a week of diplomacy and sightseeing in the Middle East and Europe.
He concentrated in his remarks on the billions of dollars from a taxpayer-funded plan that will be disbursed this summer, although much what he was described was already in the works, spurring new debate about just how much the $787 billion stimulus package is helping.
"We've done more than ever, faster than ever ... to get the gears of the economy moving again," Obama said. Based on the work done across a broad spectrum of federal agencies during the first 100 days of the administration, the president said, "we're in a position to really accelerate."
But at the same time, he said he wasn't happy with the progress made so far and pressed his Cabinet to keep at it.
Time for recovery
He said he was pleased the economy lost fewer jobs in May than experts anticipated, saying that was a sign things were moving in the right direction. But Obama also cautioned bluntly that "we're still in the middle of a very deep recession" and said "it's going to take a considerable amount of time for us to pull out."
The jobs initiative under the stimulus law covers an array of public works ranging from parks and wastewater projects to improvements at military facilities, airports and veteran medical centers.
The ramp-up is not surprising; the administration had always viewed the summer as a peak for stimulus spending, as better weather permits more public works construction and federal agencies had processed requests.
Republicans remain critical of the stimulus spending, slamming it as a big government program that ultimately will do little for recovery.
Said Obama: "Our ultimate goal is making sure that the average family out there, mom working, dad working — that they are able to pay their bills, feel some job security, make their mortgage payments."
The sheer enormity of the spending plan and its long-term costs to the public have raised concern for many Americans and given Republicans a foothold.
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 41 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Obama's handling of the deficit, his highest disapproval rating on any subject polled. Other surveys show that the public is particularly attuned to government spending and the amount of red ink in the budget.
Talking back to skeptics
Without naming names, Obama shot back at skeptics during the Cabinet meeting.
"I know that they are some who, despite all evidence to the contrary, still don't believe in the necessity and promise of this recovery," Obama said. "And I would suggest to them that they talk to the companies who, because of this plan, scrapped the idea of laying off employees and in fact decided to hire employees. Tell that to the Americans who received that unexpected call saying, `Come back to work."'
The White House announced a Web site to allow people to share stories and videos of projects in their towns.
Just how much of an impact Obama's recovery program had on the pace of job losses is up for debate.
Obama has claimed as many as 150,000 jobs saved or created by his stimulus plan so far, even as government reports have shown the economy has lost more than 1.6 million jobs since Congress approved funding for the program in February.
Obama initially offered his stimulus plan as a way to put people back to work, a promise that 3.5 million jobs would be saved or created. The administration's predictions that unemployment would rise no higher than 8 percent already have been shattered.
Federal agencies will release billions of stimulus dollars to states in the coming months.
Health and Human Services will provide funding for 1,129 health centers to provide expanded service for 300,000 patients; Interior will begin improvements on 107 national parks; Veterans Affairs will start work on 90 medical centers in 38 states; the Justice Department will fund 5,000 law enforcement jobs; the Agriculture Department will begin 200 new rural waste and water system projects; and the Environmental Protection Agency will begin or accelerate the cleanup of 20 Superfund sites.