Biden says US economy 'still in trouble' as Covid relief moves forward

Republicans and economic policy experts battle over how much aid is appropriate, while Biden aims to address 'enormous pain'

US President Joe Biden makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on February 5, 2021.  Biden is traveling to Wilmington, Delaware where he is scheduled to spend the weekend. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN

US President Joe Biden said after a dismal January jobs report that it is "very clear that our economy is still in trouble", while his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief proposal faces some challenges in Congress.

"I see enormous pain in this country," Mr Biden said after the January report was published Friday morning. "I am going to act fast."

Employers only added about 49,000 jobs in January, barely making a dent in the 227,000 jobs that were lost in December, the jobs report revealed.

The US remains down ten million jobs from the beginning of the crisis, though the unemployment rate declined in January from 6.7 per cent to 6.3 per cent.

“Today’s report is yet another reminder that our economy is still climbing out of a hole deeper than that of the Great Recession and needs additional relief to ensure that the pandemic can be brought under control, that families and businesses can stay solvent and make it to the other side of this crisis, and that workers can feed their families and keep a roof over their head," Jared Bernstein, economic adviser to Mr Biden, said at the White House press briefing on Friday.

The Senate passed a budget resolution, part of the process of passing a version of the president's $1.9tn aid package, at 5.30am in Washington after a marathon overnight debate session. Mr Biden's plan covers funds for vaccine distribution, struggling small businesses, school reopenings and direct payments to Americans.

White House Council of Economic Advisors member Jared Bernstein talks to reporters during the daily briefing at the White House, in the Brady Press Briefing Room on February 05, 2021 in Washington, DC.  / AFP / Brendan Smialowski

The House passed the Senate’s budget resolution later on Friday, paving the way for Mr Biden’s Covid relief efforts to be fast tracked without Republican support in the Democrat-majority Congress.

The aim is to pass federal aid before mid-March when enhanced unemployment benefits and other pandemic aid expires.

Ms Harris made her first ever tiebreaking vote on Friday morning after being sworn in as the first woman vice president. The Senate is evenly split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, giving her the deciding vote.

There is a developing economic policy discussion over whether Mr Biden's relief plan is too big, while the White House says that going too small may not be enough.

Economist Larry Summers, formerly of the Clinton and Obama administrations, wrote a Washington Post op-ed arguing that the president's plans risk being too ambitious.

"We can't do too much; we can do too little," Mr Biden said in response.

Mr Bernstein, when questioned in the White House press briefing on Friday afternoon, agreed with the president.

“So, this is risk management, this is balancing risks," Mr Bernstein said. "In our view, the risks of doing too little are far greater than the risks of doing too much."

"Our economy and our families can’t afford for us to fail to act once again," he continued. "Strong relief is urgently and quickly needed to control the virus, get vaccine shots in arms and finally launch a robust, equitable and racially inclusive recovery.”

Republicans had earlier proposed a $618 billion coronavirus relief bill in response to Mr Biden's $1.9tn plan.

The president answered that proposal with a demand to increase it so the US government could meet the needs of the American people. He argued that lower aid would only extend the economic hurt being felt across the country.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen agreed with Mr Biden on the Republican proposal.

"This is really an urgent need and we need to act big," she declared in a Good Morning America interview on ABC on Thursday.

“We've got some tough months ahead," she said.

In addition to the dismal jobs report, Mr Biden remarked on how January was the deadliest month for the US in the history of the coronavirus pandemic, with about 100,000 people dying from Covid-19.

The country is dealing with the largest outbreak globally, with the highest number of cases and more than 455,000 deaths.

While cases are on the decline, US public health officials are urging continued caution due to the uncontrolled and undetected spread of several Covid-19 variants that may be more transmissible.