Obama’s plan to build up economy

Wallsten is a writer in our Washington bureau.

President-elect Barack Obama on Saturday pledged to launch the biggest public works program since the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s as part of his plan to create 2.5 million jobs and stem an economic tailspin that is growing worse by the day.

“We need action -- and action now,” Obama said in a weekly address broadcast on radio and posted as a YouTube video.

His comments came the day after the government said that 533,000 jobs had been lost in November -- the worst monthly job-loss report in 34 years. The address marks the latest effort by the incoming president to shape events and build momentum for his agenda before he takes office.

Obama aides and Democratic lawmakers hope that a new economic stimulus plan, which could cost as much as $700 billion, will be passed by Congress in January so that Obama can sign it into law within hours or days of his inauguration Jan. 20.


The plan, as Obama laid it out Saturday, would include massive investments in roads and other infrastructure programs reminiscent of President Eisenhower’s highway program, which employed millions of people and cost tens of billions of dollars. Obama said he would compel states to move quickly on construction projects or risk losing the help from Washington.

“We will create millions of jobs by making the single-largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” he said. “We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule -- use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges . . . they’ll lose the money.”

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office has estimated that the state could initiate $28 billion worth of infrastructure projects within four months.

“Equipment could be ordered and shovels could be in the ground virtually immediately,” said David Crane, a Schwarzenegger advisor who has met with Obama aides.


On Saturday, Obama said his plan would include a push to make federal buildings more energy-efficient by installing new heating systems and energy-saving lightbulbs. Such initiatives, he said, would save billions of taxpayer dollars and “put people back to work.”

Additional provisions would upgrade school buildings, enhance broadband technology and create a system to ensure that Americans have access to electronic medical records.

Obama did not say how much each idea would cost, nor did he attach an overall price tag to the proposals. He said he would provide details in the coming weeks.

But his comments reflected the growing belief among his advisors and Democratic leaders that the plunging economy requires massive spending -- despite the national debt.


Since the recession began a year ago, about 2 million jobs have been lost. Obama has said that his plan would aim to create 2.5 million jobs by 2011.

“We need to act with the urgency this moment demands to save or create at least 2 1/2 million jobs so that the nearly 2 million Americans who’ve lost them know that they have a future,” he said Saturday.

Several governors and local officials embraced Obama’s initiative, including Schwarzenegger, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D-Pa.). The three issued a joint statement through their nonprofit, Building America’s Future.

“We applaud President-elect Obama for focusing on the crisis . . . ,” they said. “With the latest grim economic news, now more than ever, we need this investment in infrastructure to help create and retain jobs and lay the foundation for future economic growth.”


Obama and his team had hoped that they could remain largely detached from current events until his inauguration, planning for his administration behind the scenes. But the demise of the economy, instability in the financial markets and the collapse of several big banks -- combined with President Bush’s current lack of clout -- have heightened pressure on Obama to assert himself.