From NBC's Ali Weinberg
CHARLOTTE, NC -- President Obama took advantage of a visit to a manufacturing plant here to tout today's release of a report showing that the U.S. economy added 162,000 jobs in March, which he said was evidence of his administration's successful efforts to shore up the economy.
But Obama cautioned that the country still had "a ways to go" before it sees a full recovery.
Speaking in front of a crowd of 300 employees of the Celgard battery manufacturing plant, the president said the increase of 162,000 jobs -- although the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.7% -- was a sign that the economy was "beginning to turn a corner."
"There are more folks feeling a sense of pride and satisfaction that comes with a hard-earned, well deserved paycheck at the end of a week of work," he said, adding that the news signified that the "necessary though sometimes unpopular" steps the administration has taken -- like the stimulus act and bank bailout -- were "helping us to climb out of this recession."
The backdrop of a lithium battery plant, which received $50 million in stimulus funds, was an opportune setting for Obama to cite one of the most immediate "deliverables" of his administration's recovery efforts: the increased proportion of world lithium battery production the United States will enjoy in five years.
"Before the Recovery Act, before I took office, we had the capacity to make less than 2% of the world's lithium ion batteries -- less than 2%," he said. "In the next five years, on the trajectory that we're now on, we're going to be able to make 40% of the advanced batteries right here in the United States of America."
Echoing the words of White House economic adviser Christina Romer, who said this morning that there would still "likely be bumps in the road ahead," Obama urged his audience to "be mindful that today's jobs numbers, while welcome, leave us with a lot more work to do."
Taking an I-feel-your-pain approach with his audience, Obama also lamented the emotional toll unemployment can take. "It saps the vitality of communities, especially in places that have seen factories and other anchoring businesses shut their doors," he said. "And being unable to find work -- being able to provide for your family -- that doesn't just affect your economic security, that affects your heart and your soul. It beats you up."
Obama's trip today was his third to North Carolina since becoming president. Typically a red state, Obama won it in the 2008 presidential election. A February 25 poll from the state's Elon University showed his job approval rating at 50%-45%, compared with a 59%-25% rating at the same time a year ago.
Obama took advantage of addressing concerns about his administration's policies by answering questions from five audience members -- mostly about initiatives recently passed or announced.
One question came from Michael Shorr, who said he was concerned that Obama's announcement earlier this week of offshore drilling expansion would stifle investment in alternative energy sources.
Obama said that while he was focused on developing alternative energy, America "does not yet have the breakthroughs to completely replace fossil fuels." Consequently, as he said earlier this week, the country must tap existing sources of energy such as oil, coal, and natural gas in order to achieve independence from foreign suppliers.
Joyce Ravis asked about the increased taxes that would come in the health reform. In part of his 17-minute answer, Obama said: "I'm going to have to work hard over the next several months to clean up the misapprehensions people have." He then launched into a soliloquy on the moral imperative of passing health care, as well as the need to reduce the toll that programs like Medicaid and children's health plans are having on the nation's deficit.
"Our hope is that we actually save money even though more people are covered," Obama said.
Realizing the length of his explanation as he came to the end, Obama remarked, "Boy, that was a long answer. I'm sorry. But I hope I answered your question," laughing along with his audience.