BALTIMORE (AP) -- 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.
Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican congressman, criticized Obama's trip as a photo opportunity and said the president should have stayed in Washington to work on economic problems. 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.
At the plant, Obama touted another effort to create jobs faster. He signed a memorandum Friday directing federal agencies to update infrastructure permit processes, aiming to cut their timelines in half. The White House said it's an important step in the president's goal of creating jobs by making urgent repairs to roads, bridges and railways.
The White House cited as an example 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 contributed to this report.
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