CHARLOTTE, N.C. - President Barack Obama arrived in Charlotte just before 11 a.m. Friday to visit the Celgard battery technology manufacturing plant, where he spoke about jobs and took questions from audience members.
White House security officials and staff members arrived at Celgard, located in southwest Charlotte, early Friday morning to secure the area. The event was not open to the public.
Obama is pushing his administration's plans to create jobs, a crucial campaign issue for Democrats as they look toward November's midterm elections.
During his speech, he hailed a new government report showing the most jobs created in nearly three years. "We are beginning to turn the corner," he said.
"We've broken this slide," Obama said several hours after the Labor Department reported that businesses added 162,000 jobs to their payrolls in March. He said the new figures point the way toward "helping us climb out of this recession," the deepest in 80 years.
Celgard is now hiring and expanding through a Recovery Act grant. Obama toured the plant, which makes rechargeable lithium batteries used in laptops, digital cameras and other devices.
The company received a $49 million grant earlier this year to help develop batteries for electric vehicles.
He told workers that his aggressive -- if unpopular -- policies helped add jobs.
The president said the grant was creating nearly 300 direct jobs for the company and more than 1,000 jobs for its contractors and suppliers. He also pledged that a new emphasis on oil and gas drilling will not undercut alternative energy work.
"I've often had to report bad news during the course of this year as the recession wreaked havoc on people's lives," Obama said. "Today is an encouraging day. The economy actually produced a substantial number of jobs instead of losing a substantial number of jobs."
Yet, the positive news reported by the government was tempered by some sobering statistics. For instance, many of the 162,000 new jobs went to temporary Census workers. And more than 40 percent of those without jobs have been unemployed for more than six months. Since the recession began in December 2007, some 8.4 million have lost their jobs.
The president called that “a staggering sum." The president added that statistics don’t do justice to the toll unemployment takes on people directly impacted.
"We shouldn't underestimate the difficulties we face," he said. "We're still going through a hard time."
Obama's team wants to marry much-needed job creation with the politically sour stimulus, hoping that will help Democrats gain favor with voters after a bruising, yearlong battle with Republicans over health care.
Republicans have created a steady drumbeat of criticism of Obama's stewardship of the economy and against his health care victory in the hopes voters blame Obama at the ballot box in November.
"If President Obama were serious about job creation, he would be spending less time on the campaign stump trying to sell Americans on a health care bill they don't like and can't afford and more time focusing on putting our nation back to work," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Katie Wright said.
Between now and November, Democrats are looking to illustrate their economic accomplishments. The White House said Obama on Friday would point to Celgard as an example of the economic progress made since he took office and again call on Congress to act on job-creating proposals.
In his speech, Obama said the worst of the storm is over, touting Celgard and businesses like it as markers of economic recovery.
Taking questions from the audience, Obama was asked whether his decision earlier in the week to open the door to offshore oil and gas drilling would hurt development of alternative energy sources.
He said it wouldn't, and that there was room for both.
"We can't drill our way out of this problem," he said.
Obama said a top priority remains improving energy efficiency and promoting clean energy.
But during the transition, he said, the nation needs to find ways to use traditional energy sources in the "most efficient and most environmentally friendly ways."
Reversing two decades of policy, Obama earlier in the week voiced support for lifting drilling bans off the southern Atlantic coastline, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and in parts of Alaska.
The president is expected to stay in Charlotte until around 2 p.m.