WASHINGTON — To spend or not to spend? That is the question that's pressing President Barack Obama.
While gushing red ink as it spends billions to stimulate the economy, the Obama White House wants to spend more to create jobs, and it faces growing pressure from labor unions and liberal groups to keep the federal spigot open to help the jobless and to save Americans' endangered jobs.
However, Obama also faces a growing number of Americans who are saying that he's making the economy worse, not better. Congress — skittish about a voter backlash in a congressional election year, when incumbents already are falling to challenges from the right and left — appears torn between spending more to create jobs and pulling back to keep from adding to the national debt.
Underlying it all, Americans are growing more skeptical of the president's economic program.
In a poll released Tuesday, the Pew Research Center found that the ranks of people who think that Obama's policies are making things worse has nearly doubled to 29 percent from 16 percent a year ago.
At the same time, 23 percent said that the president was making the economy better, down slightly from 26 percent a year ago.
"The public increasingly sees Barack Obama's policies as having an impact on economic conditions," Pew said. "And for the first time, slightly more say the impact has been negative than positive."
Key to public perceptions: The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, at 9.7 percent.
At the same time, a debt crisis in Greece that's sent shivers across Europe has heightened awareness at home of soaring annual federal budget deficits and rising U.S. debt. The deficit is likely to hit $1.5 trillion this year, adding to a gross federal debt of more than $13 trillion.
The president remains firmly committed to the $862 billion stimulus package that was enacted last year, which is still spending money to spark the economy.
Lest he wobble, labor unions and liberal groups are pressing for more. At a meeting this week, Robert Borosage, the co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, complained that the stimulus package and other major Obama measures such as overhauling health care are too small, not too big.
"People are strongly feeling that they need to push more. He has compromised too readily, too early," he said.
The president supports spending more to create jobs in legislation that's pending before Congress, but those plans are being downsized in response to deficit pressures.
A $200 billion plan in the House of Representatives to boost jobs met resistance from freshmen lawmakers who are worried about re-election, and was reduced.
"There is a very ... changed climate in terms of the size of the spending," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week.
In the Senate, Democrats on Tuesday scaled back initial plans to extend unemployment benefits for the jobless and to help states pay teachers' salaries, though the final terms remain in flux.
Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Tuesday that a proposal to spend $24 billion to help states was in jeopardy, and with it as many as 1 million jobs.
He urged Obama and congressional Democrats to put off worries about the deficit until later.
"The only way we can get our economy back on track is to keep Americans working," he said. "Without help from the federal government, states will be forced to begin massive layoffs in July. Now is the time to focus on saving jobs."
In a largely symbolic bow to concerns about the deficit, Obama's administration said Tuesday that it would cut spending at some federal government agencies by 5 percent — starting in October 2011.
However, those yet-to-be specified cuts would offset other spending increases, and leave agencies' overall budgets still meeting a freeze that the president outlined earlier.
"We are asking non-security agencies to specify how they would reduce their budgets by 5 percent, which will give us the ability to achieve the overall non-security freeze even while meeting inevitable new needs and priorities," White House budget director Peter Orszag said in a speech at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research organization.
Republicans urged the White House to send proposed spending cuts to Congress now or to move toward rescinding appropriations that already has been enacted.
"The two things that are growing fastest in this Democrat economy are the size of the federal government and the crushing burden of the national debt," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said after the release of Orszag's remarks.
Orszag rejected the call for immediate spending cuts, saying they'd "go nowhere" in the Democratic-controlled Congress. "It just comes down to a question of whether it's a fruitless exercise, because we have very low probability of success in the current environment," he said.
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