President Obama says his jobs plan would create tens of thousands of construction jobs by funding public works projects like roads, bridges and school improvements.
The president made that case again Tuesday afternoon, while standing outside Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver.
The Mile High City is familiar turf for Obama: It’s where he accepted his party’s nomination for the White House three years ago; and it’s where he signed the original economic stimulus bill.
At the time, he said it marked the beginning of the end of the nation’s economic troubles.
“There will be hazards and reverses,” he said in 2009. “But I have every confidence that if we are willing to continue doing the critical work that must be done, by each of us, by all of us, then we will leave this struggling economy behind us and come out on the other side, more prosperous as a people.”
Two-and-a-half years later, many Coloradans are still struggling. The unemployment rate here is 8.5 percent, and in just one month this summer, the state lost some 1,800 jobs. Christine Meyer sees the effects of the long-running downturn at the Cost Cutters beauty salon she manages, just a block away from Lincoln High School.
“They cut their own hair when they can’t afford to come get a haircut. And our business has gotten a little bit less every year,” she says. “It’s significantly slower.”
Meyer says it would be great if the president could do something to create a lot of new jobs in the area. But she’s skeptical of the plan he’s promoting, which relies heavily on a payroll tax cut for workers and employers.
“A tax cut’s great and all — don’t get me wrong. But are you really going to see it? Six cents here and there … It’s not really going to add up to a whole lot,” she says. “It adds up to more when you’re paying it than it does when you’re not paying it.”
The ‘Solar Coaster’
Hopes were higher in 2009, when Obama signed the stimulus bill after touring a new solar array on the roof of Denver’s science museum. Blake Jones, whose Namaste Solar company installed the panels, introduced the president. He said the stimulus bill would give a big lift to clean energy companies like his.
“We now have plans to increase our workforce by 20 percent this year, and 40 percent through 2010,” Jones said at the time.
This week, at Jones’ office on the outskirts of Boulder, a Prius with the Namaste logo sits in the parking lot. Jones says his workforce has indeed grown by 40 percent over the past couple of years, largely thanks to the solar incentives in the stimulus bill.
“In the solar sector, it absolutely did what it was supposed to do,” he says. “We’re hiring, as an industry, lots of construction workers, particularly electricians and roofers.”
But in a story that’s repeated in many industries, the economic benefits of the stimulus have been partly offset by other headwinds. This year, the local utility reduced its own solar subsidy, and Jones’ business in Colorado dropped sharply. He was forced to lay off some workers before resuming his expansion in other states.
“We call it the ‘solar coaster,’ ” he says. “It’s still dependent on subsidies. It’s still dependent on public policy. And unfortunately, that changes a lot.”
And government policies that benefit solar energy may be a tougher sell, in the wake of the high-profile bankruptcy of Solyndra, a California solar company that received a $500 million loan guarantee from the federal government. The cheap Chinese competition that was Solyndra’s undoing isn’t really a factor in the installation business Jones is in. But fairly or not, he says, the episode is a black eye for the whole solar industry.
“Whenever something like that happens and in hindsight a bad call is made, yeah, that’s very unfortunate,” he says. “But there have been a lot of good calls that have been made.”
Like many businesspeople, Jones says what he really wants is some consistent and predictable policymaking he can plan around. In today’s Washington, though, predictability is the last thing the government has to offer.