Obama Looks To Boost Middle Class

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks about the Middle Class Working Families Task Force, Jan. 30, 2009, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
President Barack Obama reached out to the working and middle classes Friday, re-announcing the creation of a Middle Class Task Force and reversing a number of George W. Bush's executive orders that critics regard as bad for labor unions.

The president called the economic slump a "continuing disaster" for America's families during a White House speech Friday, adding that the nation's leaders cannot waste time finding solutions for ailing economy.

And although his task force centers on the middle class, Mr. Obama said that "we're not forgetting the poor." He said his administration wants to make sure low-income people "get a piece" of the American pie "if they're willing to work for it."

Vice President Joe Biden will lead the task force, comprising a panel of advisers and four Cabinet members.

"Quite simply, a strong middle class equals a strong America. We can't have one without the other. … It is our charge to get the middle class - the backbone of this country - up and running again," Biden said.

On labor issues, Mr. Obama signed a series of executive orders Friday that he said should "level the playing field" for labor unions in struggles with management.

The orders Mr. Obama signed will:

  • Require federal contractors to offer jobs to current workers when contracts change.
  • Reverse a Bush order requiring federal contractors to post notice that workers can limit financial support of unions serving as their exclusive bargaining representatives.
  • Prevent federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses meant to influence workers deciding whether to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.

    "We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests," Obama said before signing the executive orders during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

    "I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it's part of the solution," he said, to a round of applause. "You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement."

    Read full transcript of President Obama's address
    Read text of President Obama's executive orders on labor
    Labor leaders visited the White House for a second consecutive day Friday for the announcements.

    Both were meant as a way for the new administration to connect with workers at the end of a week that has seen U.S. companies announce thousands more jobs cuts.

    "Over the last 100 years the middle class was built on the back of organized labor. Without their weight, heft and their insistence starting in the early 1900s we wouldn't have the middle class we have now, in my view," Biden told cable channel CNBC on Thursday. "So I think labor getting a fair share of the pie is part of it."

    The Democratic president, not even two weeks into his term, was already trying to balance the needs of one of his party's most reliable constituencies - organized labor - while he also reaches out to Republicans.

    Mr. Obama doesn't necessarily need Republican support for his $800 billion economic stimulus plan and other initiatives to clear the Democratic-controlled Congress, but he has said he wants to transcend the usual partisan Washington politics as the country faces two wars and its worst recession in 70 years.

    The government reported more bad economic news Friday. The U.S. economy shrank at a 3.8 percent pace at the end of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century.

    On Thursday, Mr. Obama lashed out at Wall Street, saying it was shameful that employees were paid more than $18 billion in bonuses while their crumbling financial sector received a historic bailout from U.S. taxpayers.

    Mr. Obama was responding to reports Thursday that Wall Street executives were paid billions in bonuses last year as Congress poured hundreds of billions into the financial system to address an economy reeling from souring debt, defaulting mortgages and choked lending.

    With new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at his side, the president said the payouts were "the height of irresponsibility."

    "It is shameful," Mr. Obama said. "And part of what we're going to need is for the folks on Wall Street who are asking for help to show some restraint, and show some discipline, and show some sense of responsibility."

    Labor leaders also visited the White House on Thursday, where Mr. Obama welcomed them to the East Room as he signed his first major piece of legislation, an equal-pay act that organized labor and women's groups championed.

    Unions have been lobbying the Obama administration to repeal scores of executive orders they view as hostile to their cause. Officials gave administration officials their top 10 executive orders they wanted to see dismantled quickly.

    Many executive orders are enacted and repealed based on which party controls the White House. One of the rules Mr. Obama planned to repeal Friday was approved by President George. H.W. Bush, removed by President Bill Clinton and reinstated by the second President George Bush.