Economy Watch: Obama Talks Jobs

Speaking before a joint session of Congress on Thursday, President Obama took to the bully pulpit to call for the passage of a $450-or-so billion jobs program.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Speaking before a joint session of Congress on Thursday, President Obama took to the bully pulpit to call for the passage of a $450-or-so billion jobs program. “There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation,” he asserted. “Everything in here is the kind of proposal that’s been supported by both Democrats and Republicans—including many who sit here tonight.”

Doubtless many of his political opponents will take issue with that characterization. In any case, the president said the “American Jobs Act” will provide lower payroll taxes for employees and employers, along with an extension of jobless benefits, school construction and infrastructure renovation (roads and bridges), aid to states to re-hire teachers, and a number of other initiatives. The president added that he will ask the congressional “super committee” to figure out a way to pay for the proposals.

The speech, though focusing on economics, also had elements of a campaign speech, throwing down the gauntlet to the Republican-control House of Representatives to act on jobs or be labeled do-nothing (by him) in a time of national distress. By the elongated timetable of a modern presidential election, campaign season is here already, whether or not the electorate wants to hear about it. The Republican candidates’ debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, after all, was the day before Obama’s speech.

Chairman Bernanke vague on QE3

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke gave his own speech on Thursday, “The Outlook for U.S. Economic Growth,” to the Economic Club of Minnesota. In customary central banker understatement, Bernanke said, “the recovery from the crisis has been much less robust than we had hoped… indeed, aggregate output in the United States still has not returned to the level that it had attained before the crisis. Importantly, economic growth over the past two years has, for the most part, been at rates insufficient to achieve sustained reductions in the unemployment rate.”

Bernanke denied that inflation is going to be a wrecking ball for the economy going forward. “Importantly, we see little indication that the higher rate of inflation experienced so far this year has become ingrained in the economy,” he asserted.

For Fed observers looking for hints of QE3, all the chairman said was (in paraphrase) “we could do that if we want to, but we don’t want to. Yet.” His actual statement was: “The Federal Reserve has a range of tools that could be used to provide additional monetary stimulus. We discussed the relative merits and costs of such tools at our August meeting.”

Wal-Mart brings back layaway for Christmas

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said on Thursday that it’s bringing back layaway about five years after it discarded the practice, which allows consumers to put an item on hold while they pay for it over time. The retail giant isn’t the first chain retailer to dust off layaway—a pre-’80s practice for the most part—as a response to the pressures of the Great Recession on consumers, but when Wal-Mart does something, it’s automatically a splash in the retail world.

The discounter is also trying to kick off the holiday shopping season earlier to some extent, whether or not shoppers want to hear about it. A small amount of Christmas merchandise will arrive in stores later this month, as opposed to mid-October. Also, Wal-Mart will once again offer outdoor decorations and Christmas village sets, items it quit carrying a few years ago.

Wall Street headed on a downward swing after the chairman’s speech (but before the president’s), with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing 119.05 points, or 1.04 percent. The S&P 500 lost 1.06 percent and the Nasdaq was down 0.78 percent.

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