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Obama holds small business forum in Ohio

From NBC's Athena Jones
CLEVELAND, OH -- In a bid to show the American public he's focused on jump-starting the country's economic recovery, President Obama hosted a small business forum here to tout his administration's efforts to help support the nation's main job creators.

President Obama participates in a breakout session during the Winning the Future Forum on Small Business at Cleveland State University in Cleveland today.

The president was joined by several members of his cabinet, who held breakout sessions with 100 to 120 small business leaders to discuss topics ranging from workforce training and export assistance to providing companies with more access to capital.

Obama and officials like SBA Administrator Karen Mills, who also traveled to Ohio for today's event, have called small businesses the "backbone" of the U. S. economy and say that helping them expand and hire is key to speeding America's recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

"The big companies generally get most of attention in our economy, and the success of large companies is critical to the success of medium and small businesses as well," he said during brief remarks before the breakout sessions. "But it's small business like yours that help drive Americas economic growth and create two of every three new jobs. You're the anchors of our Main Streets."

Obama told the group gathered in a college gymnasium here in the economically hard-hit battleground state -- the unemployment rate in Ohio stood at 9.6% -- that he did not come here to talk but to listen, and said he hoped the people in attendance would express their feelings candidly.

"We're here to hear from you directly," he said. "We want your stories, your successes, your failures, what barriers you're seeing out there to expand, what you've learned along the way, what would make it easier for you to grow, what would make it easier for you to help create new jobs?"

Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said she hoped the working session here today -- which she dubbed a "laboratory" -- would provide a national model and help the administration learn how better to help these businesses.

One of the chief concerns expressed in the breakout sessions was trouble getting loans, an issue the White House has sought to address by eliminating capital gains taxes on key investments and encouraging more lending by community banks -- though it was clear that not everyone was aware of those measures. When session participant Philip Davis suggested the administration allow people to invest in small businesses without having to pay capital gains, the president smiled, saying “That is such a good idea that we implemented it last year.”

Officials say the Obama administration has put in place 17 tax cuts that will benefit small companies, including a provision that allows companies to write off 100% of investments in equipment this year. Obama's 2012 budget includes an additional $650 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program that supports early-stage research into clean energy technologies.

But today's event was held against the backdrop of an ongoing battle in Congress over funding for the rest of this year -- not to mention the 2012 fiscal year, which doesn't begin until October.

Over the weekend, House Republicans voted on a continuing resolution that would fund the government through September, but that would include more than $60 billion in cuts. The Democratic-controlled Senate is sure to reject that bill in its current form, and the two sides have until March 4 to reach an agreement and avoid a government shutdown.

Part of the president's "Win the Future" argument is that the country must make "sensible" budget cuts and work to put the country on a stronger long-term fiscal path, while also investing in areas like education, infrastructure, and innovation to boost America's ability to compete globally.

The sessions ended with a live Q&A on www.whitehouse.gov and Facebook, in which the president and Austan Goolsbee, chair of the Council on Economic Advisers took part.

"When the bet concerns America, you've always gone all in," Obama told the small business leaders during his closing remarks before the group. He added that the breakout sessions had brought out some good ideas, including a proposal to provide tax credits for angel investors' who provide early investments that can make or break a company.

Also on the road with the president today were Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Gene Sperling, who replaced Larry Summers as director of the National Economic Council. AOL Co-Founder Steve Case, who heads up a new White House public-private partnership "Startup America," was also on hand. The president has named Case to his White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which is set to meet for the first time on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

Obama was met on the icy tarmac upon landing here by Republican Gov. John Kasich and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH). The president last traveled to Cleveland in the days before the midterm elections to try to help then-Gov. Ted Strickland, a strong ally during his own campaign for the presidency, hold on to the state's governor's mansion.