President Barack Obama promoted job creation Monday in politically important North Carolina, trying to assure Americans he's focused on their No. 1 concern — and his greatest political weakness — as his potential GOP presidential opponents prepared to target his economic policies in their first major debate.
Speaking at an energy-efficient-lighting plant in Durham, Obama called for training more engineers as a means to boost long-term economic growth, as he sought simultaneously to reassure businesses about his administration's policies and try to instill some optimism in voters despite dismal recent economic reports.
His remarks also served as a counterpoint to gathering political opposition represented by seven Republican 2012 potential presidential hopefuls who were meeting in New Hampshire later Monday for a debate where they were likely to agree to disagree with Obama on his approach on the economy.
"Today, the single most serious economic problem we face is getting people back to work," the president said. "We stabilized the economy, we prevented a financial meltdown and an economy that was shrinking is now growing. ... But, I'm still not satisfied. I will not be satisfied until everyone who wants a good job that offers some security has a good job that offers security."
"I am optimistic about our future," the president said, even while acknowledging that "we can't be complacent."
"Our economic challenges were years in the making, and it will take years to get back to where we need to be," he said.
Obama announced a program to train 10,000 new American engineers every year through a public-private partnership.
"We know that if we're going to maintain our leadership in technology and innovation, our best companies need the world's brightest workers — American workers," Obama said.
Obama is looking for ways to brighten a bleak employment picture, pushing private-sector hiring along with his own political fortunes during a two-day trip to two key states — North Carolina and Florida — and a rendezvous with an important Hispanic constituency on the island of Puerto Rico.
The trip gives him a chance to offer a counterbalance to what is sure to be a sustained attack on his economic and other policies during the nationally televised GOP debate. From Durham he was heading to Miami to speak at three Democratic National Committee fundraisers, before traveling Tuesday to Puerto Rico.
But even before the debate got under way, Republicans were dismissing Obama's efforts.
"Photo-ops with business leaders only reinforce that no one in this administration has ideas to create the private sector jobs our economy desperately needs," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Before his remarks to workers at Cree, Inc., the president met with a group of business leaders involved in a jobs council he's created. They aired concerns about everything from difficulty getting small business loans to regulatory burdens on airlines, and the president pledged to do what he could to help as his administration aims to breathe life into the faltering economic recovery.
At the same time, as Washington faces an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the government's borrowing limit or go into unprecedented default, Obama tried to make real for people what's at stake. He argued for smart decisions on what to cut and how — sending a message to Republicans who say they won't agree to raise the debt limit unless Obama and Democrats agree to enormous spending cuts and no tax increases at all.
Obama agrees on the need for spending cuts overall, but wants to increase spending in some areas, such education and clean energy technology like the LED lighting the Durham plant creates — spending that he says creates jobs.
"So the American people need to know that over the next month, as we focus on making sure that we have a balanced thoughtful resolution to this problem, this isn't to the exclusion of worrying about jobs," the president said, "but is actually in service of making sure businesses have enough confidence about the investment environment so that they can start getting off the sidelines and putting more money to work and hiring more people."
Obama said the economy had made "great strides" from where it stood in 2008. But he said that even though jobs were being created they weren't being created fast enough. Job growth slowed sharply in May, with the private sector adding just 54,000 jobs.
In an opinion piece published Monday in The Wall Street Journal, General Electric chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt and American Express CEO and chairman Ken Chennault laid out a series of jobs council ideas to increase employment, including easing visa applications to attract more tourists and increasing energy efficiency in commercial buildings. Immelt heads the president's jobs and competitiveness council, the group Obama met with Monday.
Top White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said many of the council's proposals can be undertaken without taxpayer funds or congressional action. But the White House has few options and the administration and Congress are now focused on cutting long-term spending, the price for increasing the government's borrowing authority. The government says it will exceed its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling on Aug. 2.
By unveiling his jobs council proposals in North Carolina, Obama chose a state with the 10th highest unemployment rate in the country and where he won his narrowest victory in the 2008 presidential campaign.