Inaugural: Obama needs to address unemployment

Taking on the president's jobs performance is becoming a regular gig for Jack Welch. He sent a Twitter message after Barack Obama's inaugural address on Monday, saying the president is apparently "comfortable with high unemployment," because he failed to talk enough about jobs in his speech.

You may remember that Welch, the former General Electric chairman, claimed that the Obama administration had cooked the books in September, when the unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent - below 8 percent for the first time in four years, conveniently just before the election.

For Welch to now champion jobs with such verve, he must be working off some bad karma from his GE days, where he pioneered the concept of firing the bottom 10 percent of workers every year. Or maybe it's politics.

Either way, Welch was wrong in September, but his point is well-taken this time. There's nothing more important than bringing back jobs, and Obama should spend a lot more time thinking and talking about it.

Two stories from earlier this month illustrate the influence of employment on the economic health of every other sector. The first was "Painful drop in home loans," a report in Newsday on Jan. 11 that the number of Long Islanders getting home loans has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 2005. Federal housing data show that homeowners borrowed just $12.1 billion in 2011 to purchase, refinance or make improvements to homes, compared with $31.8 billion six years earlier.

While it's important that homeowners are taking on less debt, I remember how busily Long Islanders were spending that money back in 2005: putting in swimming pools, landscaping, adding on a bedroom or a deck. All of that spending meant jobs for someone - our neighbors.

In fact, the U.S. economy is largely driven by consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic growth. You might say consumers are the real job creators. But if consumers are going to keep up their end, we have to be in a good financial position. For most people, that means paid employment.

Another story in Newsday, right next to the housing report, was "Tuition increases slowing." Moody's Investors Service surveyed nearly 300 colleges and universities and found that the schools can't increase tuition at previous rates because students are no longer clamoring for their services. Growing numbers of high school graduates are choosing more affordable community colleges, enrolling part time or skipping college altogether.

Moody's thinks that the poor employment outlook for college graduates since the 2008 financial crisis is responsible for lower enrollment. But I have to wonder if disillusionment with degrees didn't begin 20 years ago or more, when midcareer workers were laid off without regard to how many letters they could tag after their signatures. They are the parents of today's graduating generation.

If there's no implicit promise that pursuing education will get you somewhere, why invest the time and money?

Recently, I saw a man with a sandwich board outside of Penn Station, advertising that he could repair computers on the spot for a fee. Are we becoming a country of people toting our businesses around on our backs?

In his inaugural, the president promised to build roads, bridges, electric grids and digital lines. He referred to harnessing the sun, wind and soil to fuel cars and run factories - which, despite Welch's tweet is a jobs agenda. I hope Obama is indeed "bold and swift" in fulfilling these and other job-creating ideas, before my kids have to don a sandwich board and head for Penn Station.

This essay was first published in Newsday.