Obama launches middle-class task force

The group will assess the impact of the slowing economy on average Americans; Obama issues pro-labor orders.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Facing new evidence of a darkening economic climate, President Barack Obama on Friday established a new middle-class task force to assess the status of average-income Americans and recommend new ways to strengthen the economy.

The president also signed three executive orders to support organized labor, a key Democratic constituency.

Addressing an audience of business and union leaders in the White House, Obama said it is time for the the government to act "boldly and swiftly" to assist a struggling middle class.

"We can't ... drag our feet or delay much longer. The American people expect us to act, and that's exactly what I intend to do," he said.

The U.S. economy suffered its biggest slowdown in 26 years in the last three months of 2008, according to the government's first reading about the fourth quarter, released Friday.

Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the nation's economic activity, fell at an annual rate of 3.8% in the quarter, adjusted for inflation.

The latest numbers are "a continuing disaster for America's working families," Obama said. "The recession is deepening ... and the economic crisis is growing."

The president's new Task Force of Middle Class Working Families, led by Vice President Joe Biden, will be composed of a panel of advisers and four Cabinet members. The task force will try to assess the status of the middle class - specifically whether it is growing or shrinking and how well off it is.

It is ultimately expected to issue a series of recommendations on how best to bolster the economic security of average-income Americans.

"A strong middle class equals a strong America," Biden said. It is critical to "raise the living standards of the people who are the backbone of this country."

The task force's first meeting is scheduled to be held on February 27 in Philadelphia. The meeting will focus on "green jobs," employment opportunities tied to renewable energy and environmentally friendly development.

Pro-labor directives

Reaching out to organized labor, the president also issued three executive orders designed to "level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests," Obama said.

"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it's part of the solution," he added. "You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement."

The first order prevents federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses that were intended to influence workers' decisions to form unions or engage in collective bargaining.

A second requires federal vendors with more than $100,000 in contracts to post workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

"Federal labor laws encourage collective bargaining, and employees should know their rights to avoid disruption of federal contracts," Obama said.

The third order requires service contractors at federal buildings to offer jobs to qualified current employees when contracts change.

-- CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report. To top of page

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