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Image: Barack Obama
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the headquarters of Cree, a leading manufacturer of energy-efficient LED lighting on Monday in Durham, N.C.
updated 6/13/2011 3:54:42 PM ET 2011-06-13T19:54:42

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."

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"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.

Story: Jobs panel proposes ways to spur hiring

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.

Image: Barack Obama, Jeff Immelt
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
President Barack Obama, second from left, tours the manufacturing facilities of Cree, a leading manufacturer of energy-efficient LED lighting, Monday, June 13,in Durham, N.C.

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.

Story: Larry Summers calls for new boost for U.S. economy

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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Will the economy cause Obama’s downfall?

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    >> i'm not concerned about a double-dipper session. i am concerned about the fact that the recovery that we are on is not producing jobs as quickly as i want to to happen. prior to this month we had seen three months of very robust job growth in the private sector . and so we were very encouraged by that. this month, you still saw job growth in the private sector but it slowed down. we don't know if this is a one-month episode or a longer trend.

    >> that was president obama on tuesday. on the sluggish economy. toughest thing standing between him and reelection to a second term. ed that lines like this one in time magazine , what recovery, have got to make the obama team very concerned. howard fineman , msnbc analyst is you and susan page . thank you so much. i felt something move when we got the unemployment news. something seemed different. now this election is a 50/50 situation. the president doesn't have an edge because of this economy.

    >> i think that's right, chris. i think that the view in washington and the view in the economy. i think for the republicans they are thinking, hey, you know, we got a shot here a real shot here. that enthuses people. i think democrats are worried. i think the president uttered lines in recent days that i don't think it is good for --

    >> this is recovery but doesn't produce jobs.

    >> he said i think in that same event, he said something like the important thing is not to panic.

    >> which is what people do, they panic.

    >> also you don't want your president to be saying, hey folks, the important thing is not to panic.

    >> sometimes he gets clinical an analytical. he sounds like bernanke there. people want an optimistic cleer leader guy. and he is being the economic analyst.

    >> my wife, a corporate executive uses that term, reset inform downward. our expectations about an incremental advantage to our children's lives over ours. if that's gone. reasonable unemployment rate because people are changing jobs and replaced by a permanent rate of 9 or 10%. how does he smile through that?

    >> i tell you another thing that happens if people see that scenario is they take a leap of faith with a republican nominee they are not concerned about. we stlau happen in 1929 with bill clinton and under 1980 with reagan. how many times have you talked about a weak republican field. people look at romney and say, maybe this guy knows something about the economy that barack obama does not and i'm willing to take a leap of faith and vote for him.

    >> that's very american. this is not as good as it gets.

    >> what you are saying chris is something deeper than the latest cycles of the economy.

    >> yes.

    >> you are saying there is a whole reset of the national psyche in which we are now saying to ourselves that things won't be better for our children. and does barack obama dare admit such a thing.

    >> like jimmy carter --

    >> well, when jimmy carter did that, he got run out of town. it is not in the american grain, even if it is true.

    >> we know what romney will do. we are all studying this together. it looks like he is hunkering down for the long hall. he knows if he has the money and background we can wait out the sarah palins. he can wait out the bachmann's and hope she is his only opponent. he can win a couple, lose a couple. but he keeps getting his share. at the end he has the money and credibility and goes head it head with obama .

    >> if the issue is the economy, he has an argument it make and he is not hurt by the problems of abortion or flip-flopping. what is interesting about romney is he is playing for the general election . global warming as a general election position he is taking. not playing in florida and iowa strong holds. he is saying, i'm not worried about that. he can make the argument to republicans, you may not like me best but i'm the best chance for barack obama and that's a powerful argument.

    >> i think he says to the tea party , this isn't about ideology. it is about who will save the american economy . who will get us through this.

    >> it is fascinating to be in the middle of this. that change in the weather was happening simultaneously with romney 's announcement up to new hampshire pz we thought it was a distraction by sarah .

    >> we said oh, this is terrible. he is dull. he is this and that and sarah stole his thunder. now, yay, that is true and he will hide and disappear bp but the guy has a lost business experience. he has run successful business.

    >> and dull is okay.

    >> and dull is okay if management is good. that is the strongest argument.

    >> here is the poll, approval rating. this is what the incumbent faces. 37.7% and downward. my concern is that when you say is so american. the american people , i think are like the manager in the dugout. they see the pitchers not getting the guys out. he doesn't say you're a bad guy . and the american people don't have to dislike their president. they put their hand out and say give me the ball. you know how they get the ball?

    >> yeah.

    >> there is a great ritual in baseball. the pitcher hands over the ball because the manager asks for it. he never says i'm keeping it. right? this is what the american people do thp they don't dislike herbert walker bush.

    >> they like obama . they think he has good values. but when romney says he doesn't understand the economy. we gave him a chance and he failed. that is such hard argument to reply to unless you make the economy better.

    >> by the way, that is romney 's one line. he got applauds for that.

    >> he is not a funny guy generally. but he made a tough critique. he said 37 months in a row they are below expectations. here is my question, based on your report, can you say the president is really open minded about whether the economy will pick up or is deluded? i said a moment ago on that tape, we don't know if this is a blip or a trend.

    >> my sense of barack obama , what i have heard about private converts conversations he had with other democrats is that he is anything but deluded. i think barack obama is a very, very frank with himself kind ever guy. how he translates that into the campaign rhetoric, we don't know. he knows very much what is going on. he knows that there are a lot of weak economic numbers out there. he knows the mortgage foreclosure thing is potential of dragging the economy back down again. he knows all this stuff. he is not deluding himself about it at all. i don't know how he will try to sell the --

    >> let's look at -- he is concerned. i don't agree with it. i respect him a lot. suddenly the election theme changed pt the republican line in 2010 was he is a leftist. now is is, he is shifting from ideology to stewardship. new election theme. as in 1992 , it's the economy with everything else a distant second. romney is pro prohibitive front-runner.

    >> you see that are romney now. he knows what his message will be. if the economy gets better romney will interest trouble.

    >> what would you do if you were the president? one of the top political people? would you say, go after the sun rise industries. he is flying in sm where. be part of the automotive industry . point to the good spots, the graen spots we used to call them. this is not going to sound right. we have to do something with the dollar. would you fight for it with congress knowing that they will probably say no? would you push for something you think is the solution?

    >> the green shoots, the green spots , are and with the over all mood, people aren't listening.

    >> you are off tone?

    >> you are off tone. you have to try something big again. democratic economists are pushing for it. they aren't going to do with crewingman wants.

    >> what does he want?

    >> krugman wants a dig --

    >> that's what i want. replace it with the smell of construction. start building highways, start building bridges . by the way, start building fast trains. put minorities to work. give people jobs. if the economy is in a serious double-dip or facing one, shouldn't you take the extreme, i hate to say the word, radical changes that roosevelt attempted.

    >> that's at odds with some of the public view too.

    >> run against congress. it's a republican house. they're enot going to do anything but cut programs. cutting programs is so off base. i don't think anyone will believe you will get elect by --

    >> you have to do something big.

    >> he will take on chris christie and that guy in florida, rick whatever his name is.

    >> scott.

    >> call them do-nothing bums and say it is time to build. this country moves or dies. thank you howard fineman ,

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