BALTIMORE — President Barack Obama is leaving behind scandal-focused Washington to focus on the country's slowly improving jobs picture.
Obama is to fly by helicopter Friday about 40 miles north to Baltimore, which has had its share of tough times in the move from an industrial to service economy. But Maryland has experienced job growth this year as part of a nationwide economic recovery.
The White House said the trip is designed to focus on three areas of needed investment to grow the middle class — jobs, skills and opportunity.
The president plans to highlight one of the manufacturing companies still thriving in the city by speaking at Ellicott Dredges. It makes equipment for excavation under water and on beachfronts around the world.
Obama also plans to visit a community center that provides job training to parents and an elementary school that provides early childhood education. Obama has proposed that public preschool be available for all 4-year-olds from low-income families.
The focus on Obama's economic agenda comes at the end of a week that has been consumed by a trio of political controversies. They include the targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service, the administration's response to last year's deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, and the seizure of Associated Press phone records by the Justice Department as part of a leak investigation.
Obama's turn to the economy comes in a state that added 31,200 jobs over a year to climb to a 6.5 percent unemployment rate in April, according to the most recent data by the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. April saw a downturn, with Maryland losing 6,200 jobs after four consecutive month of job growth.
"Last year, we had the best-rated job creation of any state in our region and we have very nearly recovered 100 percent of the jobs that we lost during the recession," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said at a bill-signing ceremony on Thursday.
Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican congressman, criticized Obama's trip as a photo opportunity, instead of staying in Washington to work on economic problems. For example, Harris said Obama has been dragging his feet on developing the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from western Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast and create jobs. The administration has not yet taken a position on the project, which is opposed by environmentalists but supported by the president of Ellicott Dredges, Peter Bowe, in testimony before Congress Thursday.
"That would boost jobs at Ellicott Dredges, but other than that, it's just going to be another photo op on a campaign-style tour when the president should be in Washington tending to the nation's business and to address the huge scandals that are popping up on a daily basis in Washington," Harris said in a conference call with other Maryland Republicans.
Obama planned to tout another effort to create jobs in his visit to Ellicott Dredges. He signed a memorandum Friday to federal agencies directing them to update infrastructure permit processes with the goal of cutting their timelines in half. The White House said it's an important step in his goal of creating jobs by making urgent repairs to roads, bridges and railways.
"By cutting red tape and shaving months, and even years, off the time it takes to review and approve major infrastructure projects, we will be able to start construction sooner, create jobs earlier, and fix our nation's infrastructure faster," the White House said in a statement. It cited an example of the recently approved replacement of the aging Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River in the suburbs just north of New York City, which saved two to three years on the timeline.
Associated Press writer Brian Witte in Baltimore contributed to this report.