Image:President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama
Jason Reed  /  Reuters
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama view the 26/11 memorial at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, site of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, on Saturday. The Mumbai stop kicked off a 10-day trip through Asia.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/7/2010 12:49:57 AM ET 2010-11-07T04:49:57

The first couple showed a softer side of President Obama's agenda Sunday in India, chatting with high school students in New Delhi and celebrating a major religious festival.

The president and his wife, Michelle, spent their morning at Holy Name High School, where students in their school uniforms gave the Obamas a detailed explanation of one of their projects — a miniature village with a windmill running power to it.

The Obamas were also set to watch a performance in honor of Diwali, an important festival for Hindus and Sikhs. Obama has called it an honor to be the first president to celebrate the festival of lights at the White House last year.

The revelry came a day after the president embraced India as the next jobs-creating giant for hurting Americans, not a cheap-labor rival that outsources opportunity from the United States.

Fresh off a political trouncing at home, Obama was determined to show tangible, economic results on his long Asia trip, and that was apparent from almost the moment he set foot on a steamy afternoon in the world's largest democracy. By the end of the first of his three days in India, he was promoting $10 billion in trade deals — completed in time for his visit — that the White House says will create about 54,000 jobs at home.

That's a modest gain compared with the extent of the enduring jobless crisis in the United States. Economists say it would require on the level of 300,000 new jobs a month to put a real dent in an unemployment rate stuck near 10 percent.

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Yet to Obama, the bigger picture was the lucrative potential of an unleashed trading relationship between India and the United States. He seemed comfortable and energized away from Washington, days removed from the GOP's election thumping.

"For America, this is a jobs strategy," Obama said of his emphasis on trade, although it could stand as a motto for his 10-day trip. He is spending Sunday with young people in Mumbai and then heading onto meetings in New Delhi, the capital, before shifting later in the week ahead to Indonesia and economic talks in South Korea and Japan.

In India for the first time, Obama quickly got a sense of riches and poverty, history and tragedy.

His helicopter ride into this bustling financial center took in some of the country's slums. His luxury accommodation for the night, the Taj Mahal hotel, was one of the sites of a terrorist rampage in Mumbai that killed 166 people. Obama and his wife, Michelle, paid quiet tribute to the 31 people slain at the hotel, looking over their names inscribed in a memorial before meeting with victims' families and survivors of the shootings.

"We visit here to send a very clear message that in our determination to give our people a future of security and prosperity, the United States and India stand united," Obama said from an outdoor plaza, the soaring Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea behind him. "We'll never forget."

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Indian commentators seized on the president's failure to mention Pakistan, India's neighbor and bitter rival. Pakistan was home to the 10 assailants.

The president also celebrated the life of a personal hero, Mohandas K. Gandhi, a father of Indian independence and model of peaceful activism. The Obamas spent time at the home-turned-museum where Gandhi once lived. They signed personal messages into the guest book and pledged to bring their daughters, Sasha and Malia, back one day.

Obama directly addressed the belief in the U.S. that India is robbing Americans of jobs. He acknowledged that many Americans only know trade and global commerce as the source of a job shipped overseas.

"There still exists a caricature of India as a land of call centers and back offices that cost American jobs. That's a real perception," Obama said. He noted the real concern in India that American corporate giants, if welcomed, would run mom-and-pop stories out of business and upend Indian culture.

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Video: Traveling to India, Obama hopes spur U.S. jobs growth (on this page)

Seeking to dismiss all "old stereotypes," Obama said the relationship between the countries is "creating jobs, growth, and higher living standards in both our countries. And that is the truth."

In the fallout of the U.S. elections, in which Democrats lost control of the House and Obama's ability to connect with his country was called into doubt, the president said one lesson learned was the need to set a better tone with business leaders. He was effusive on that front in Mumbai, gathering with top U.S. executives and studying up on their commerce with India.

"Just around this table you're seeing billions of dollars in orders from U.S. companies, tens of thousands of jobs being supported," he said. "We're a potential that has barely been scratched."

Slideshow: Obama's Asian tour (on this page)

The White House arranged for four American chief executives who are in India for the occasion to brief reporters traveling with the president. They played up the importance of India as a trading partner and praised Obama's decision to come to the country to underscore that point in person.

"India represents the 14th-largest trading partner of the United States. Why? With all of the opportunity, it should be so much bigger," said Terry McGraw, chairman and chief executive of the McGraw-Hill Companies.

Obama said, "There is no reason this nation can't be one of our top trading partners."

To that end he said the U.S. would put forward a package of reforms on export controls that resulted from past administrations' concerns about India's nuclear industry. The changes, which have been much sought-after in the business community, include relaxing controls on India's purchase of so-called "dual use" technologies that could be used for civilian or military purposes, and removing a few of the last remaining Indian companies on a so-called "entities list" of groups that face restrictions on doing business in the U.S.

Video: First lady sings, dances with Mumbai kids (on this page)

The commercial deals include the purchase of 33 737s from Boeing by India's SpiceJet Airlines worth an estimated $2.7 billion at list prices; the Indian military's plans to buy aircraft engines from General Electric; and preliminary agreement between Boeing and the Indian Air Force on the purchase of 10 C17 transport planes, worth about $4.5 billion.

For the most part, the deals were already pending, but the White House contends Obama's visit to India helped finalize them. Officials said the deals would support 53,670 U.S. jobs, but it was not clear how many, if any, new jobs would be created as a result.

Progress will take much more than public understanding. India's infrastructure remains an impediment to progress. And Obama's challenged India on the sore spot of shrinking its own barriers to trade and foreign investment. But his larger message was one of the united values and missions of the two largest democracies in the world.

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Making that point, Obama even generated some laughter at his own expense, offering a reminder of the troubles at home.

"Our countries are blessed with the most effective form of government the world has ever known: democracy," he said. "Even if it can be slow at times. Even if it can be messy. Even if, sometimes, the election doesn't turn out as you'd like."

Onkar Kanwar, chairman of India's largest tire manufacturer, Apollo Tyres, said he appreciated the symbolism of Obama's coming to India during his first term and choosing to visit Mumbai first.

"Ties are getting closer and closer, which needs to be done. ... This demonstrates his commitment to another large democracy where he sees a lot of synergies," Kanwar said. "He's done all right."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Obama answers questions on Islam, elections

  1. Transcript of: Obama answers questions on Islam, elections

    LESTER HOLT, co-host: We're going to start, though, with President Obama in India . It is day two of a trip to Asia and he says it's designed to create jobs back home. Today he also talked about the issue of terror. White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie is traveling with the president. Savannah , good morning.

    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE reporting: Lester , good morning. The president's second day in India is all about public outreach . The president looking to make a connection today with India 's youth, believing these are the people the US will be doing business with tomorrow. The president and first lady began their day with some live entertainment and soon got pulled into the action themselves, even the president engaging in a bit of dance diplomacy. The president's activities today all about public outreach .

    President BARACK OBAMA:

    GUTHRIE: A visit with high school students, a tour of an agricultural expo, then a town hall with young people at a local college with an introduction by the first lady.

    Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: I want to urge you today to ask my husband some tough questions, all right? Be tough.

    Unidentified Woman: My question to you is what is your take or opinion about jihad?

    Pres. OBAMA: I will say that, first, Islam is one of the world's great religions. I think all of us recognize that this great religion, in the hands of a few extremists, has been distorted to justify violence.

    GUTHRIE: One student asked the president about his party's losses in the midterms.

    Pres. OBAMA: One of the wonderful things about democracy is that when the people are not happy, it is their right, obligation and duty to express their unhappiness, much to the regret, sometimes, of incumbents.

    GUTHRIE: And the president was pressed on what India perceives as US favoritism to its arch rival Pakistan .

    Pres. OBAMA: It may be surprising to some of you to hear me say this, but I'm absolutely convinced that the country that has the biggest stake in Pakistan 's success is India . I think that if Pakistan is unstable, that's bad for India . If Pakistan is stable and prosperous, that's good.

    GUTHRIE: From here the president heads to Delhi , where he'll address India 's Parliament and meet with its prime minister. And with plans to go to Indonesia on Tuesday, White House officials are keeping a close eye on an erupting volcano there that's already canceled flights. But for now, they say the president's plans are intact. Lester :

Photos: Obama tours Asia

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  1. Barack Obama waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon his return on Nov. 14, in Washington, D.C. Obama returns from a 10-day Asian tour where he held bilateral talks with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Barack Obama visits the Great Buddha statue in Kamakura, Japan, on the sidelines of the ongoing APEC Summit, Nov. 14. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Barack Obama, left, talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders retreat in Yokohama on Nov. 13. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. U.S. President Barack Obama is escorted to his position by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his wife Nobuko Kan at the APEC Summit in Yokohama, Japan, Nov. 13. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, speaks with President Barack Obama during the opening plenary session of the G20 Summit in Seoul on Friday, November 12. (Andy Rain / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the G20 Summit in Seoul on Nov. 12. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. President Barack Obama gestures as he takes a seat at the G20 Working Dinner at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul on Thursday, Nov.11. Local beef and halibut from the Yellow Sea were on the menu as world leaders opened their G20 summit talks over a welcome dinner. (Yonhap / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. President Barack Obama is escorted to his position by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as First Lady Kim Yoon-ok looks on during the official arrival for the G20 Summit working dinner at the National Museum in Seoul on Nov. 11. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Yongsan War Memorial during a Veterans Day event at the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul on Nov. 11, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President Barack Obama greets military personnel at a Veterans Day event at the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul on Nov. 11. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One as he arrives in Seoul, Nov. 10. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama listen as Grand Imam Ali Mustafa Yaqub gives them a tour of the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta on Nov. 10. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Members of the audience cheer President Barack Obama after he delivered a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta on Nov. 10. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta on Nov. 10. Obama said Muslim-majority Indonesia's national philosophy of unity bewteen people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds is an inspiration to the world. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama pose for an official photo with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Mrs. Yudhoyono at the State Palace Complex Istana Merdeka in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Tuesday, Nov. 9. The two leaders began bilateral talks expected to focus on security and economic issues, on the second leg of Obama's ten-day Asian tour. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Obama walks with Michelle Obama along the red carpet with Indonesian officials upon arrival at the Halim Perdana Kusuma airport in Jakarta on Nov. 9. (Roslan Rahman / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The official band runs to get out of the rain moments before the arrival of President Obama for an official arrival ceremony at State Palace Complex-Istana Merdeka on Nov. 9. in Jakarta. Obama made a much-delayed homecoming of sorts to Indonesia, seeking to engage Muslims and cement strategic relations on the second leg of his Asia tour. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. President Obama and the first lady arrive in Jakarta on Nov. 9. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. President Obama toasts alongside India's President Pratibha Patil, right, during a state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, on Monday, Nov. 8. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, right, argues with an official from the Indian Prime Minister's office after the travelling White House press pool was refused entry to the bilateral meeting between President Obama and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Nov. 8. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The feet of President Barack Obama, right, and First Lady Michelle Obama, left, are seen as they participate in a wreath laying ceremony at Raj Ghat on Nov. 8. The Obamas were visiting the location where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. President Barack Obama reviews the honor guard during an official arrival ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, India on Monday, Nov. 8. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sprinkle flowers after they laid a wreath at Raj Ghat, the Mahatma Gandhi memorial, in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8. (Charles Dharapak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Activists and survivors of Bhopal gas tragedy sit at a protest against visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8, 2010. The 1984 gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal killed about 15,000 people and sickened some 500,000. (Gurinder Osan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greet each other after a press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8. (Saurabh Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gusharan Kaur as they arrive at Rashtrapati Bahavan in New Delhi on Nov. 8. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle Obama tour through Humayun's Tomb in New Dehli on Nov. 7. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Barack Obama bends down to shake hands with a young child as he tours through Humayun's Tomb in New Dehli on Nov. 7. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as first lady Michelle Obama and Gusharan Kaur, right, watch after arriving in New Delhi on Nov. 7. (Prakash Singh / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Barack Obama, left, watches on as first lady Michelle Obama dances with children during their visit to the Holy Name High School in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 7. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting with students at St. Xavier College in Mumbai on Nov. 7. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Barack Obama shakes hands with students at St. Xavier College in Mumbai on Nov. 7. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Michelle and Barack Obama view the 26/11 memorial Saturday at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, site of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. Obama flew into India's commercial capital on Saturday aiming to boost ties and seal big-ticket business deals to secure jobs and exports days after voters punished his Democrats in mid-term elections. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Activists of the Communist Party of India and members of various other organizations stage a demonstration Saturday against Barack Obama's visit in Mumbai. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. President Barack Obama waves to photographers through a window from backstage as he waits to deliver remarks at the U.S.-India business council and entrepreneurship summit Saturday in Mumbai, India. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. President Barack Obama greets members of the audience after delivering remarks at the U.S.-India business council and entrepreneurship summit Saturday in Mumbai, India. Obama announced $10 billion in business deals. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Handwritten notes by President Barack Obama, top, and first lady Michelle Obama are seen in the guest book during their Saturday tour of the Mani Bhavan Ghandi Museum, where Mahatma Gandhi resided on his visits to Mumbai. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An Indian shopkeeper shows a cushion with a painting of Michelle Obama designed by Arpita Kalra, in New Delhi, India, Saturday. (Manish Swarup / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Michelle Obama plays a game while entertaining underprivileged children Saturday during her visit to the Mumbai University. (Solaris Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Indian micro-artist Ramesh Sah, 47, shows the nail of his thumb painted with a miniature image of President Barack Obama on Saturday in support of Obama's visit to India in Siliguri. (Diptendu Dutta / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Barack and Michelle Obama descend Air Force One as they disembark Saturday on arrival at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India. (Solaris Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Indonesian Muslims wear slippers during a protest against the planned visit of President Barack Obama outside the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sunday, Nov. 7. Obama is scheduled to visit the world's most populous Muslim nation next week. (Dita Alangkara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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