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Obama Touts Jobs Numbers

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

President Obama sounded cautiously optimistic today after the best monthly jobs report in three years. According to the Labor Department, the U.S. economy added 162,000 jobs in March, the first six-figure gain since the beginning of the recession.

Economists were forecasting an even bigger number, though. And the president told workers in Charlotte, North Carolina, there's still a long way to go to recover the eight million-plus jobs that have been lost.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: For President Obama, today's jobs report is a welcome change of direction.

President BARACK OBAMA: We learned that the economy actually produced a substantial number of jobs instead of losing a substantial number of jobs.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: We are beginning to turn the corner.

HORSLEY: The president spoke after touring a factory in Charlotte, North Carolina, that makes parts for advanced batteries used in electric cars and elsewhere. The Celgard Company is expanding and hiring an extra 300 workers with help from the federal government's stimulus program.

Mr. Obama says the rebound in jobs nationwide is a sign his economic policies are working.

Pres. OBAMA: The tough measures that we took, measures that were necessary even though sometimes they were unpopular have broken this slide and are helping us to climb out of this recession.

HORSLEY: The Labor Department also revised upwards today its jobs numbers for January and February, showing on average the economy added 54,000 jobs in each of the first three months of the year. That's a big improvement from the first quarter of last year when Mr. Obama took office and the economy was losing three-quarters of a million jobs a month.

But the recovery is still painfully slow. The additional hiring in March didn't budge the unemployment rate, which stands at 9.7 percent nationwide. Here in Charlotte, the jobless rate is pushing 13 percent and economists aren't predicting a big drop anytime soon.

Pres. OBAMA: Economic statistics don't do justice to the pain and anxiety that results from unemployment. Lasting unemployment takes a toll on families, takes a toll on marriages, takes a toll on children.

HORSLEY: It's also taking a toll on the president's political standing and that of congressional Democrats. Republican Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia said today it's time to change course and stop what he called the excessive spending in Washington. Though even Cantor had to admit an unclear report showing job gains is an improvement from the job losses we've been seeing.

Mr. Obama resisted Cantor's call to return to what he described as the failed economic policies of the past. He noted that many middle-class families were struggling even before the latest crisis and warned building a more stable economy won't happen overnight.

Pres. OBAMA: Well, we've come a long way. We still got a ways to go. We shouldn't underestimate the difficulties we face as a country or the hardships that confront millions of our fellow citizens - some of your friends, some of your neighbors, some of your relatives - you know are still going through a tough time.

HORSLEY: Some of the workers in the audience seemed skeptical of the president's policies even though their employer has directly benefited from the economic stimulus program.

Celgard's expansion is expected to add up to a thousand jobs for suppliers around the country. One of them, Matt Litzler, wanted to know if Mr. Obama would lead by example.

Mr. MATT LITZLER: The limousines that you drive...

Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

Mr. LITZLER: ...electric with Celgard membranes in them, sometime soon?

Pres. OBAMA: You know, the answer - I'm going to be honest with you...

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: I'm going to be honest with him...

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: The president said his armored limousine is too heavy for today's electric car batteries. But this week, he did announce a doubling of the federal government's hybrid fleet.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Charlotte, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.