President Obama greets a crowd at the Rolls-Royce Crosspointe plant in… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama seized on a new jobs report as evidence that "the economy is getting stronger" as he pitched a set of manufacturing initiatives in territory key to his reelection chances.
"The key now, our job now, is to keep this economic engine churning," Obama said from the floor of a jet engine manufacturing plant in Petersburg, Va. "We can't go back to the same policies that got us into this mess."
Obama's trip, deemed official and not campaign business, came hours after the Labor Department announced that the economy had added 227,000 jobs in February, a stronger showing than economists had expected but not enough to move the 8.3% unemployment rate.
Obama's remarks were calibrated to reflect the limits of the good news. The president has been walking a fine line on jobs — being careful not to make promises or appear overly optimistic, while still claiming credit for the bright spots.
The hopeful but not celebratory tone remains a political necessity for the president. While the current trajectory of job growth may make economists and policymakers happy, the economy's problems are still far from healed.
"People's lives are most affected by the level of employment: How many people are working and what is the unemployment rate?" said Keith Hennessey, a former economic advisor in the George W. Bush administration. "At 8.3%, this number is still bad."
On Tuesday, Obama zeroed in on manufacturing, noting that the jobs report showed continued growth in that sector.
"And when I come to places like this and I see the work that's being done, it gives me confidence there are better days ahead," Obama said. "I want us to make stuff here and sell it over there. I don't want stuff made over there and selling it over here."
The president's remarks won cheers from employees at the Rolls-Royce Crosspointe plant, but his audience was much broader.
Obama won Virginia by 6 percentage points in 2008, capitalizing on the growth of Democratic votes in the historically conservative state. Since then, Virginians have elected conservative Republican Bob McDonnell to the governor's office and several tea-party-backed lawmakers to Congress. Many Republicans have been optimistic about being able to hold the state this year.
Obama has made the promise of a "renaissance" in American manufacturing a key part of his economic message. He takes credit for saving the U.S. auto industry with the 2009 bailout and has been touring U.S. plants, including a recent trip to Boeing, to highlight innovation.
On Tuesday, he proposed creating a $1-billion network of advanced manufacturing institutes. He says his administration would launch a $45-million pilot institute funded through Defense Department coffers. Funding for the larger network would need congressional approval.