Economic crisis is growing, says Obama

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President Barack Obama seized on to the latest dreary economic numbers today as a "continuing disaster" for American families and further proof that more action is warranted on his economic recovery plan.

"The recession is deepening and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing," Obama told a gathering at the White House. "Yesterday we reached a new threshold: The highest number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits on record."

"Every day it seems there is another round of layoffs, another rounds of jobs lost and families lives turned upside down," Obama said. "This is a continuing disaster for America's families."

He was pleased that the House of Representatives acted with the appropriate urgency in approving a plan this week. And he said he sought to strengthen it further in the Senate, where he is hoping to get some Republican votes. No Republicans voted for the plan in the House.

His comments came as the government reported more bad economic news Friday. The US economy shrank at a 3.8 per cent pace at the end of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century. The president told a White House gathering that the government can't drag its feet or delay action much longer.

Obama also announced a series of executive orders he said should "level the playing field" for unions in struggles they have with management.

He used the occasion at the White House to also formally announce a new White House task force on the problems of middle-class Americans, and installed Vice President Joe Biden as its chairman.

On labour issues, Obama said that among other things he was changing Bush administration policy in a way that will require companies doing contract work for the government to inform workers of their legal rights on the job.

The orders Obama signed will require federal contractors to offer jobs to current workers when contracts change, and reverse a Bush order requiring federal contractors to post notice that workers can limit financial support of unions serving as their exclusive bargaining representatives.

They also will 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."

On the middle-class tax force, Obama said "we're not forgetting the poor because they, too, share our American dream."

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."