Obama touts low-wage tourism jobs, nixes high-wage energy jobs

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

A day after President Barack Obama nixed up to 20,000 high-wage Keystone XL pipeline construction jobs, he flew down to Florida to tout his support for low-wage tourism jobs.

“The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work,” he declared during a 13-minute speech at Disney World in swing-state Florida. “It’s that simple.” The Disney speech announced a new series of regulatory changes intended to ease foreign travel to the United States.

The 1.7 million workers in the “traveler accommodation” category earned an average wage of $27,210 in 2009, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

That’s barely half the wages earned by the estimated 98,210 workers in the “heavy and civil engineering construction” category. In 2009, they earned a mean wage of $50,730, according to the BLS.

The construction workers earn more because each worker can use modern equipment to do work that once required many people. For example, they can use huge excavators to quickly dig trenches, trucks to carry pipelines long distances and welding gear to fuse pipeline sections.

In contrast, tourism jobs are mostly low-skill service jobs — serving dinners, cleaning bedrooms, guiding visitors — that can’t be automated. They can also be accomplished by immigrants who will accept lower wages than U.S.-born Americans.

It was billed as part of the president’s “We Can’t Wait” pitch, which seeks to portray Obama as helping the economy amid opposition from Republicans in Congress.

When asked to explain why the president “can’t wait” to increase tourism jobs, while also delaying approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline until at least 2013, White House economic official Danielle Gray said “the president has been pretty consistent through the initiatives… his top priority is using all of his authorities and powers to create jobs.”

“The president’s focus will continue to be on steps he can take to create jobs,” she told reporters in a midday press conference.

On Wednesday, Obama issued a press release announcing his rejection of a GOP demand to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the United States. (RELATED: Obama nixes pipeline, 20,000 jobs)

Because of Obama’ rejection, any federal approval for the pipeline has been pushed back to at least 2013.

Obama’s rejection of the pipeline is driven chiefly by his low poll-numbers.

With little support from critical swing voters, Obama is trying to bolster his support among base voters, including progressives, Hispanics, blacks and environmentalists.

Obama’s opposition to the pipeline solidified his support among the many middle-class environmentalists who strongly opposed the XL pipeline. Before his announcement, many had threatened to withdraw their support, donations and votes from Obama.

Moreover, Obama’s support for the low-wage tourism industry is a political plus in Florida, where the economy is heavily dependent on tourism. The tourism sector also employs many Hispanics, who are critical to Obama’s re-election plans.

The state is considered a must-win by strategists in both parties, partly because it has 29 electoral votes.

The tourism industry is hoping to win new customers from the fast-growing middle classes in China, Brazil and India. The new tourists could increase U.S. employment by more than 1 million workers, according to industry forecasts.

Obama’s nixing of the pipeline, though, may reduce his support among white, blue collar workers who make up a large portion of the workers who would have helped build the pipeline.

Canadian officials say they’re pushing ahead with studies to see if they should build the pipeline through to Canada’s western coast, from where the oil could be exported to China. If that alternative route is selected, the pipeline will not be built by American workers.

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