Luis M. Alvarez, Associated Press
BALTIMORE — Trying to reset the agenda amid scandal in Washington, President Barack Obama turned his attention Friday to the economy and said lawmakers should spend every day resolute on how to help it grow and get people back to work. "Our focus cannot drift," he said.
After a week that put him on the defensive and consumed by a trio of political controversies, Obama left the turmoil behind on a short helicopter flight about 40 miles north to Baltimore. The city has had its share of tough times in its move from an industrial to service economy, but Obama wanted to highlight its progress. Maryland overall has experienced job growth this year as part of a nationwide economic recovery.
Obama cited growth in the economy, a drop in unemployment nationwide and improvements in the housing and auto industries. But he said Washington still needs to do more to build a "rising, thriving middle class" that will boost economic growth even more.
"We're now poised for progress, but our work is not done and our focus cannot drift," he said in remarks to employees of a factory that makes digging and pumping equipment for the mining industry. "We've got to stay focused on our economy and putting people back to work and raising wages and bringing manufacturing back to the United States of America."
"That has to be what we're thinking about every single day," Obama said.
Obama's comments seemed almost like a plea to his political opponents, and even some supporters, to stay focused on the economy and jobs and to shift from all the questions that have been dogging the president, including about the administration's handling of the deadly September 2012 terrorist attack at a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. The past week also brought revelations that the Internal Revenue Service had been targeting conservative political groups and that the Justice Department had seized telephone records for Associated Press journalists as part of a leak investigation.
"Others may get distracted by chasing every fleeting issue that passes by," Obama said. "But the middle class will always be my No. 1 focus. Period. Your jobs, your families and your communities."
The White House said Obama's visit would focus on three areas of needed investment to grow the middle class: jobs, skills and opportunity.
He highlighted the manufacturing base that still thrives here by speaking at Ellicott Dredges, maker of equipment for underwater excavation. He visited with students in an early childhood education program along with a community center that provides job training. Obama has proposed making public preschool available for all 4-year-olds from low-income families.
At the elementary school, Obama watched a group of youngsters learn to write about their favorite zoo animals and quizzed them on simple arithmetic. When one girl had a hard time coming up with the answer to one equation, Obama said in a sympathetic tone that "subtraction is tougher than addition."
Obama's turn to the economy came in a state that added 31,200 jobs over a year, making for a 6.5 percent unemployment rate in April, according to the most recent data by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. April saw a downturn, with Maryland losing 6,200 jobs after four consecutive months of job growth. The state unemployment rate for April was still a percentage point below the national rate of 7.5 percent for the month.
"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.
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