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American Jobs Act Holds Promise?

MICHEL MARTIN, host: We're going to switch gears now. Last night, President Obama presented his much anticipated jobs plan to Congress and the country. It's called the American Jobs Act. The president said the plan, which has been price tagged at $447 billion, is necessary to address what he called the country's economic crisis, especially the 9.1 percent unemployment rate. He urged Congress to approve the plan right away.

Here's a short clip from the speech, detailing a few of the proposals.

President BARACK OBAMA: Pass this jobs bill and starting tomorrow small businesses will get a tax cut if they hire new workers or if they raise workers' wages. Pass this jobs bill and all small business owners will also see their payroll taxes cut in half next year. If you have 50 employees making an average salary, that's an $80,000 tax cut and all businesses will be able to continue writing off the investments they make in 2012.

MARTIN: In addition to cutting taxes for businesses that hire new employees, the plan would also reform the unemployment insurance system and boost government spending on schools and infrastructure. The Barber Shop guys will weigh in later, of course.

But first, we decided to get reaction from two people who actually spent a lot of time thinking about how jobs actually get created. Marc Morial is the president of the National Urban League. The group is considered a civil rights organization, but most of the organization's programs are actually aimed at improving employment opportunities for minorities. And Mr. Morial, in addition to being a past president - I'm sorry, a past mayor of New Orleans, actually has owned and operated several small businesses himself.

Also with us once again, Andy Shallal. He is a successful small businessman. He owns the Eatonville Restaurant and the Busboys and Poets Restaurant chain in the Washington, DC area.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MARC MORIAL: Great to be with you.

ANDY SHALLAL: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you because so of much of the speech seemed to be aimed at small businesses. What was your reaction to it?

SHALLAL: I really liked the substance of the speech. I think the speech was a little too long. I thought the venue was the wrong venue, but other than that, I thought it was a great speech for small business.

MARTIN: What proposals particularly stood out for you? And the real question is, do you think it will actually matter? Do you think it actually is the kind of thing that would encourage somebody like you, for example to hire someone else?

SHALLAL: It would matter very much to me. You know, it's up to - it's cutting the payroll tax by half, up to $5 million in payroll, which means $155,000. That's huge. That's maybe three jobs and it's jobs that I would otherwise not hire, possibly. It's jobs. For example, in my business, we're looking at sort of deepening our administrative sort of angle or our administrative department.

And we've been looking, you know, weighing the options. Should we hire more of this or should we hire more of that? Do we need to hire another manager or do we need to hire another administrator? This will push me to hire the administrator right away without even thinking about it at this point.

MARTIN: Interesting. Marc, your organization, as you mentioned, serves communities of color, particularly. Many African-American leaders, particularly members of the Black Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, have been particularly critical right now, feeling that there just isn't enough being done to address the concerns of minorities who are suffering disproportionately from unemployment.

Did you hear anything in the speech that you think will be of particular help to the constituency that you are most dedicated to serving?

MORIAL: Well, I heard the president embrace three ideas that the Urban League actually recommended to he and his team as long ago as early 2010. One is the idea of an infrastructure bank. The second is the expansion of summer jobs, which no doubt will assist the black teen unemployment rate, which is nearly 50 percent. The third is direct job creation, through which state and local governments will be given assistance to hire teachers and also to hire first responders.

My sense, though, is that we have to push for an expansion of the plan. Infrastructure is good. It's important. We need to rebuild roads and bridges, but we also need to rebuild schools, parks, playgrounds, urban sewer systems, and we need a component containing a plan which trains people in urban communities, in black communities, in Latino communities, in inner city communities for the jobs that would be created in infrastructure.

With respect to summer jobs, I think it's great. I'm looking forward to seeing the specifics in terms of how large this commitment is. And with direct job creation, I fully support and the Urban League fully supports supporting first responders and teachers, but thinks that direct job creation ought to even go further than that which the president proposed.

From my standpoint, the important thing is that the president was strong, resolute, engaged, and had a sense of passion that I hope is going to continue, because this is a battle. This is a fight to create jobs for this nation.

MARTIN: Andy, I'm curious about what you said. You said you thought it was the wrong audience. How come?

SHALLAL: Yeah. I think the audience is the American people and I think they have been so disengaged from Congress and seeing the bickering and the bipartisanship that's been taking place. The way that I see it is he's throwing this in the middle. They're going to tear it apart. One side's going to, you know, want this part of it. The other side's going to oppose to that, and you're going to end up with business as usual.

I think the American people want to be able to move the ball forward and I think they've seen Congress as really an obstruction to advancing the economy, to advancing this country.

MARTIN: But aren't they the ones who have to move? So he has to talk to them at some point. Right?

SHALLAL: Yeah. Absolutely. But the American people have to talk to them. It's not the president that needs to talk to the Congress. He needs to mobilize his base so that they can put pressure on Congress to be able to move this forward.

If they see it this way, it's the president, who's a Democrat, he's coming in to tell them what to do, half of them - I mean, a lot of them didn't even show up, you know, let alone if they're going to play. So that's, I think, the problem.

MARTIN: Well, Marc, you know, interesting. To that point, you know, some of the reaction has been interesting so far. Many people were expecting, perhaps, a more vigorous response from the Republicans, but so far they seem to be saying, well, we'll wait and take a look at it.

But one argument that a number of them have made is that, you know, the president's already tried this stuff and it hasn't worked, so why should they try more of the same? What would you say to that?

MORIAL: I'd say to them, where's your plan? I mean, the idea is that the president's placed a plan on the table and it's easy to stand in the gallery and criticize and obstruct and tear down. It's more difficult - and the important thing, I think, that the president - point that the president made that I have reaffirmed and I've been loud and strong on this all year, is that we're in a crisis of immense proportions.

So it's not a temporary crisis. It's a longstanding crisis of jobs and economic growth and it's going to require a combination of the government and the private sector, not the government versus the private sector, to create, incent and compel the types of jobs that we need in this nation.

So I think those who oppose the president should have their own plan, their own ideas, not a set of talking points. And I think we can't wait for an election to confront the deep problems of unemployment that affect this nation, particularly urban communities.

MARTIN: Well, he certainly said that. He said that last night.

MORIAL: The president's going to have to take this to the people consistently and aggressively over the next several months, and I hope that he'll stay on the road, he'll visit big and large communities, inner city communities, rural communities, suburban communities, go be a witness and also go tell people how this plan is going to affect and impact them.

From our standpoint we'll be - certainly we support what he's planned, but we're also going to be encouraging expansions and modifications because we think that there's got to be a sharp focus on those parts of the nation where the unemployment is highest.

MARTIN: Okay. We're going to have to leave it there for now. And just I do want to mention that - we do understand we will be hearing from the Republican leadership next week.

Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League. He was with us on the phone from New York. Here with us in Washington, DC, in our studios in Washington, once again, Andy Shallal, the owner of the Eatonville Restaurant and the Busboys and Poets restaurant chain in the DC area. To be continued.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MORIAL: Thank you, Michel.

SHALLAL: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.