The president chose the bustling Texas capital as a backdrop to refocus on higher wages, education and a manufacturing-driven agenda that had been eclipsed by his struggles over gun control and spending cuts and his push for an overhaul of immigration laws.
"You might not know this, because if you listen to all the doom and gloom in Washington and politics, and watching cable TV sometimes you might get kind of thinking nothing is going right," Obama told students at a technology high school. "The truth is there's a lot of reasons for us to feel optimistic about where we're headed as a country."
"Thanks to grit and determination of the American people, we cleared away the rubble of the worst economic crisis in our lifetime," he continued.
Still, Obama said that while housing markets are improving, corporate profits are skyrocketing and the energy and auto industries are thriving, there remains a need to boost the middle class.
The president's visit to Austin is the first in a series of field trips aimed at giving a high profile to the economy and jobs, issues still clearly at the forefront of the public's concerns.
In addition to his appearance at Manor New Technology High School, Obama scheduled a tour of an Applied Materials Inc. plant. The company provides equipment, services and software to the semiconductor, flat panel display and solar power industries.
By traveling to Texas to begin this renewed attention to his jobs initiatives Obama chose a state represented by two of the most conservative Republican members of the Senate -- John Cornyn and tea party hero Ted Cruz. Texas also has the second-highest Hispanic population in the country, an attractive demographic group for Democrats and a key audience for Obama as he also pushes for an overhaul of immigration laws.
The emphasis on jobs and on the needs of the middle class comes amid signs that the economy is continuing to recover, that the private sector is hiring, though not at an optimal rate, and that the stock market is maintaining a record setting pace. But Obama is not necessarily benefitting from those trends, and hidden behind the positive numbers are stagnant wages, reduced working hours and low-wage hiring. What's more, with a 7.5 percent unemployment rate, nearly 12 million Americans are out of work.
An Associate Press-GfK poll last month showed that the percentage of the public that believes the country is headed in the wrong direction has been rising as has the percentage of people who disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy.
"We've got to make sure that middle-class wages and incomes are also going up, because most families haven't seen their take-home pay rise for years now," he said.
He said many families still need help refinancing their mortgages to take advantage of low rates.
Addressing persistent fiscal issues, including broad based budget cuts that the government is now confronting, he said: "Our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in years, but now we've got to budget in a smarter way so it doesn't hurt middle-class families or prevent us from making the critical investments that we need for your future."
Obama reiterated his push for college affordability measures and expanded preschool, points he made during his State of the Union speech in February.
The White House also used the trip as an opportunity to launch administrative initiatives to demonstrate continued action even as his bigger proposals find opposition in Congress.
Among the initiatives is a competition to create three new Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, partnerships among businesses, universities and government to help U.S.-based manufacturers and workers create good jobs. Five federal agencies -- the Defense, Energy and Commerce departments, NASA and the National Science Foundation -- are putting $200 million toward the effort.
"We believe that manufacturing is worthy of that priority because it punches above its weight economically," said Gene Sperling, director of Obama's National Economic Council.
Before his remarks, Obama toured a classroom at the technology high school, marveling at solar powered model cars. After his remarks he rolled up his sleeves and joined a nurse, a teacher, a drywall contractor and a small business owner for lunch at Stubb's, a local barbecue restaurant.
He also stopped by a technology start-up working space in downtown Austin, where he met with entrepreneurs, several of whom were demonstrating their companies' work. Praising their innovations, he warned that China could possibly leap ahead of the United States on research.
"So we've got to get our act together," Obama told them.
It was Obama's second trip to Texas in two weeks. He was greeted at the foot of Air Force One by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a critic of the president's policies. The two men chatted as they walked across the tarmac.
The attention to jobs comes amid questions about whether the second-term president has enough sway to get his agenda through a divided Congress before attention turns to the November 2014 midterm elections. Since his second inauguration, Obama has lost a bid to expand background checks for gun buyers and was similarly unsuccessful at getting lawmakers to undo the spending cuts.
His jobs proposals also have stalled in Congress, with Republicans showing no interest in job-creation plans based on new federal spending. They also argue that Obama's regulatory regime and new health care law -- the president's signature domestic policy achievement to date -- are hindering more robust job growth.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday ridiculed Obama's trip as mere image-building.
"If you're someone who's all about the visual, then of course putting on a pair of goggles or showing up at a factory is a great way to at least look like you're doing something about job creation," he said.
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