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Obama, Biden task force on middle class

From NBC's Athena Jones

WASHINGTON -- On the campaign trail then-candidates Barack Obama and Joe Biden cast themselves as champions of labor and middle class, men who had not forgotten where they came from and who would fight for the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Today's announcement of a task force aimed at studying ways to raise living standards for middle class Americans and help the poor become middle class is in line with that same populist theme and with Obama's consistent focus on economic issues at a time of rising unemployment.

"Today we learned that our economy shrank in the last three months of 2008 by 3.8 percent," Obama said, calling the statistic a disaster for working families. "The recession is deepening and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing."

The president repeated his call for bold swift action to pass a recovery package that creates job and his desire to see the House bill strengthened in the Senate.

The middle class task force, which Biden will chair, will hold regular meetings, the first of which is set for Feb. 27th in Philadelphia and which will be on green jobs.

The task force will propose laws, policy and executive orders focused on issues like expanding education and training opportunities, restoring labor standards and protecting retirement security. Dr. Jared Bernstein will be the group's executive director. The administration also launched a website -www.AStrongMiddleClass.gov -- where it will post the group's meeting materials and reports.

The audience assembled for the East Room announcement included members of Congress and the administration, representatives of organized labor and at least one governor, Montana's Brian Schweitzer.

Both Obama and Biden made a point of stressing the importance of the labor movement, with Obama saying that strong unions were key to a strong middle class. He signed three executive orders intended to strengthen unions and protect government workers when contracts change hands.

Biden welcomed labor back into the fold, saying such groups had been neglected during the previous adminisration.

"I want to thank the outstanding individuals, many of whom are in this room: members of Congress, members of labor, members of business, interest groups that are here representing non-profits," he said. "It's good to see so many of my friends from -- our friends from organized labor, as well. Welcome back to the White House."

At one point Biden made a joke about transparency in the vice president's office, a clear reference to Vice President Dick Cheney that prompted chuckles in the crowd.

"This task force, I might add, which coming out of the Vice President's Office will be a bit unique, will be fully transparent -- totally transparent," he said. "We are going to consult openly -- openly and publically without side groups, who can help us develop the most far-reaching, imaginative solutions to help us solve these problems and create the outcome we're looking for."