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Obama walks political tightrope with job plan

US President Barack Obama is expected to present a $300 million job creation plan to a sceptical Congress Thursday as part of a new effort to create urgently needed jobs with data last week showing that US unemployment has hit 9.1 percent.

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AP - President Barack Obama is going before a sceptical Congress to pitch an economic plan aimed at creating jobs urgently and forcing Republicans to own the problem with him, as millions of Americans remain out of work and out of patience.

Obama, faced with sagging poll numbers and high unemployment, has an underlying political strategy: If he can’t get his ideas passed heading into his re-election year, he at least hopes to show why he shouldn’t take the blame.

In his speech Thursday, Obama is likely to offer at least a $300 billion package of ideas -- tax relief, unemployment insurance, spending to support construction jobs, aid to states to keep people in their jobs. Businesses would get their own tax breaks. And he will promise a long-term plan to pay for it all.

Yet all of it ultimately will depend on a Republican-controlled House of Representatives that has a different economic approach and no political incentive to help a Democrat seeking a second term.

So, however cooperative his tone, Obama’s goal is also to put Republicans on the spot to act -- in their face, and in their chamber.

That is why Obama chose his most prominent venue, a joint session of Congress, a setting better known for his yearly State of the Union address. While the choice helps give him command of the stage, it also lifted expectations for a breakthrough moment, when the reality is that any sustained job growth will take many months, if not years.

Obama is expected to speak for up to 45 minutes, beginning at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT).

As official Washington got back to work this week, the speech felt a bit squeezed on all sides. It comes one day after an attention-sucking debate of Republican presidential contenders and was to take place so close to the start of the popular National Football League season Thursday night that the White House reassured the public that Obama would be finished speaking before kickoff.

The unemployment rate, which stood at 5 percent at the start of the deep recession and 7.8 percent when Obama began in office, is at 9.1 percent. Most troubling is the trend line. After a period of steady if modest job creation, employers have stopped hiring. There was no net change in jobs in August.

Before Obama even said a word, political and economic reality raised two questions: Will any of his ideas get approved, and will they actually work?

When asked about some of the ideas Obama is expected to discuss, majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents were all skeptical that the proposals would do a lot to create jobs, a Pew Research Center poll out Wednesday found. A series of new polls by major news organizations finds that the mood of the country is downright dismal about the direction of the country, with Obama’s standing and approval on the economy at or near the lowest levels of his presidency.

Yet voters are holding all leaders accountable, supporting the White House’s point that Congress is under pressure to act, too. An Associated Press-GfK poll found that more people assign chief blame for the economy to former President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans and Democrats than to Obama.

Democrats familiar with the president’s plans say the White House sees the speech as a pivot point after spending the spring and summer focused on negotiations over deficit spending. They say the fall offers the president a window to press congressional Republicans to act on his economic plan -- and if they don’t, Obama will spend 2012 running against them as obstructionists. Whether that’s enough to win over voters is another matter.

Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, said the president won’t start with ideas that have been “preapproved” by Republicans in Congress.

“Ultimately, the test for any of these ideas: Are they right? Can they help the economy? Can they help get people back to work?” Axelrod told The Associated Press.

The president’s plan to pay for his ideas is a political necessity in a time of fiscal austerity. Deficit-boosting stimulus spending is out. But here, too, he is banking on a lot of help.

Obama plans to cover the cost by asking a new congressional supercommittee debt panel to go beyond its target of finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by the end of November, so the extra savings can pay for short-term economic help. That debt panel meets for the first time Thursday.

In one upbeat sign for those looking for a Washington compromise, House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have told Obama they see potential areas of agreement on jobs -- for example, infrastructure, which Obama has pushed repeatedly. Cantor also signaled to reporters Wednesday that he might support a payroll tax cut.

At the heart of Obama’s plan will be extending, by one more year, a payroll tax cut for workers that went into effect this year. The president wants the payroll tax, which raises money for the federal Social Security pension program, to stay at 4.2 percent rather than kick back up to 6.2 percent. That tax applies to earnings up to $106,800.

Obama is expected to seek continued unemployment aid for millions of people receiving extended benefits. That program, too, is set to expire at year’s end.

Since Obama took office in January 2009, nearly 2 million Americans have lost jobs. Almost 14 million people are out of work.
 

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