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Obama takes jobs message to battleground N.C.

From NBC's Athena Jones
Jobs, jobs jobs. That was the focus of President Barack Obama's trip to the battleground state of North Carolina today.

At a stop at Cree, Inc., a manufacturer of energy-efficient LED lighting, the president toured the factory and met with his Jobs and Competitiveness Council to talk about ways to spur economic growth and jump-start hiring. 

"Today the single most serious economic problem we face is getting people back to work," Obama said. "I will not be satisfied 'til everyone who wants a good job that offers some security has a good job that offers some security."

Jobs top the list of Americans' concerns as a slew of recent economic data suggest the recovery could be slowing down and polls show the public is not impressed with the president's handling of the economy.

In light of the disappointing May jobs numbers -- when unemployment ticked up to 9.1 percent and the economy added a lower-than-expected 54,000 jobs -- the White House has been especially eager to show Obama is doing everything he can to promote job creation even in the face of what he has called strong "headwinds" like high gas prices, concerns about the debt crisis in Europe and instability in the Middle East.

With the two parties struggling over a deal to reduce the deficit and raise the limit for how much the county can borrow, there's no appetite for new stimulus from the GOP-controlled House.

To drive any significant job growth, private companies must invest and hire, which explains today's focus on the Jobs Council headed by General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt. Immelt and American Express CEO Ken Chenault -- another council member -- wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal this morning  in which they laid out what they called "fast-action" steps -- like training workers, cutting red tape and getting more loans to small businesses -- that they say could help create a million new jobs in two years.

At today's meeting, Jobs Council participants gave brief presentations to the president on topics ranging from the need to boost agricultural exports and update the air traffic control system, to changing immigration laws to help high-tech companies and training the manufacturing workforce. Immelt said the council was working on about 30 ideas and their focus over the next few months would be on infrastructure, small business financing and creation and encouraging more foreign direct investment in America.

While promising to act on some of these recommendations, Obama said it was wise of the group to focus on steps the private sector and the administration could take without legislation, but added that it "sends a message to Congress."

"We shouldn't have to work around Congress; they should be part of this process," Obama told the group at the end of the discussion, which lasted over an hour.

In the speech to Cree employees, Obama announced "an all hands on deck strategy to train 10,000 new American engineers every year" -- an idea that came up at the afternoon meeting.

North Carolina important to Obama's electoral prospects

It's no accident that Obama made this stop in North Carolina, where the unemployment rate in April was 9.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's a state he was able to swing to the Democratic category in the last election and one his party hopes to hold onto in 2012, when the Democratic convention will be held a couple hours away from Cree in Charlotte.

Then-candidate Obama visited Cree during the primary campaign in May of 2008 and Vice President Joe Biden returned to the firm last year to talk about how to help the middle class. With its focus on energy efficiency, the company fits in well with one of the president's top agenda items.

Today's trip is also an attempt to get ahead of the president's Republican critics who are using the May jobs data to criticize him. Sunday on "Meet the Press", Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus accused him of not doing enough to address the economy's most pressing issue.

"We've got crushing unemployment in this country," Priebus said. "We've got a president that's whistling past the graveyard, we've got families that are struggling."

The RNC also sent out a release criticizing Cree for shipping jobs to China. The company received a $39 million Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit (48C) from the stimulus bill and a spokesman from House Speaker John Boehner's office said the event highlighted Obama's failure on the jobs issue.

"Each of these events is a fresh reminder of the President's failure to deliver the job creation he promised," Brendan Buck wrote in an email. "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. Republicans have a Plan for American Job Creators, and we hope the President will work with us to implement it."

The two-day trip was not all policy. The president was headed to Miami to attend three DNC fundraisers on Monday night, before traveling to Puerto Rico on Tuesday in what will be the first presidential visit to the commonwealth since John F. Kennedy was in office.

In addition to Immelt and Chenault, among the other Jobs Council members at today's meeting were Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman, former Proctor and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley, Intel CEO Paul Otellini, UBS President Robert Wolf, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, Eastman Kodak CEO Antonio Perez, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Pritzker Realty Group's Penny Pritzker -- who was also a fundraiser for Obama in 2008.