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As President Obama prepares to address a skeptical union Wednesday night, some community leaders in Greater Boston are hoping he focuses more on rebuilding the economy and less on overhauling health care.
Mr. Obama faces deepening voter dissatisfaction about the economy, and a new NPR poll suggests voters have turned sour on his health care reform package.
"I think all of us are (expecting) the president to shift the focus from the health care debate and move into what's transpiring on Main Street," said Darnell Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. "Right now, the number of people who are unemployed or underemployed is probably front and center."
At the Urban League's center in Roxbury, public computers are often filled with people searching for jobs. The neighborhood's unemployment rate is 18 percent among African-American men.
"Two thousand nine and early 2010 have been more than tough, it's been devastating," Williams said. "We're seeing an increase in the numbers of people coming in, trying to find any sort of work that will allow them to sustain their lifestyles."
"There hasn’t been much talk about jobs and the economy for the last six or seven months. It’s been all about health care. It’s been a distraction."
-- Richard Lord, CEO, Associated Industries of Massachusetts
Richard Lord is also looking for Mr. Obama to shift domestic priorities. Lord is CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, an organization that represents 6,500 employers of various sizes. He estimates that confidence among his business members remains below 50 percent.
"There hasn't been much talk about jobs and the economy for the last six or seven months," Lord said. "It's been all about health care. It's been a distraction."
But Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, of the Boston-based advocacy group Health Care For All, sees health care and employment as "inextricably linked."
"We know in Massachusetts, our experience is that health reform actually is jobs," Slemmer said. "It represents putting people back to work and when people don't have access to health care, they cant work."
Steve Grossman, a candidate for state treasurer, has been on the front lines of this debate before. Grossman ran the Democratic National Committee during President Clinton's tenure. In 1992, Mr. Clinton's famous campaign mantra was, "It's the economy, stupid." A year later, Clinton's own attempt at health care reform failed.
Grossman sees Wednesday's address as a promising opportunity for Mr. Obama to use the bully pulpit and home in on economic recovery.
Health care "is going to undermine the health and well-being of businesses all over this country and so we need to reform health care," Grossman said. "But, let's not make any mistake: It is going to be about jobs, capital, economic growth and the health of the small-business community."
Click "Listen Now" to hear the interviews with Darnell Williams, Richard Lord, Amy Whitcomb Slemmer and Steve Grossman.
WBUR will broadcast the State of the Union address, live in its entirety, at 9 p.m. on WBUR 90.9 FM and wbur.org.
This program aired on January 27, 2010.
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