President Barack Obama told several hundred people gathered at a Baltimore manufacturing plant on Friday that he would keep his administration focused on the economic recovery -- despite a series of political scandals that have rocked the administration in recent days.
Obama spoke at Ellicott Dredges in broad terms about lifting the middle class by investing in infrastructure. He pressed lawmakers on Capitol Hill to work together despite partisan gridlock that has stymied progress on economic initiatives proposed by either party, but he offered little in the way of new ideas to address unemployment.
The president spoke to about 800 people at Ellicott Dredges at an event that drew most of the state’s elected leaders, including Gov. Martin O’Malley, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and most of the state’s congressional delegation.
“This should be our principal focus - how are we making ourselves more competitive, how are we training our workers so they can do the jobs that to be done?” Obama said. “I’m going to keep trying to work with both parties in Washington to make progress. Because our challenges are solvable.
“There’s gonna be disagreements about how we get there,” he said. “But let’s remind ourselves that when we work together, nobody can stop us.”
But the trip was overshadowed by the string of developing stories that have put the White House on the defense for much of the week, especially revelations that the Internal Revenue Service heaped additional scrutiny on conservative groups. The ousted head of the IRS, Steven Miller, was grilled during a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Republicans, meanwhile, criticized the trip as a campaign event.
"The president talks a good game....but he never walks the walk on regulations," said Rep. Andy Harris, the state's sole Republican in Washington. "We've seen many promises before."
Before speaking, Obama toured Ellicott Dredge's facility in the Carroll–Camden Industrial Area. He was joined by the company’s president and CEO Peter Bowe and plant manager Robert Croom.
“I’m ready to dredge,” the president joked.
Obama ended his Baltimore swing by speaking with fathers who had been helped by the Center for Urban Families, a workforce development group that has connected thousands of fathers with stable employment.
Marcus Dixon, an alumni of the program, told the president how he came to the center shortly after getting out of jail. Now, Dixon said he’s attending Baltimore City Community College, picking up his prerequisites for pharmacology.
“It restored my dignity,” said Dixon, the father of two boys. “One of the greatest things they taught me was not to have a poor mind set.”
Obama noted that he grew up without a father, adding that it was “a hard situation” but said Dixon was setting a good example for his sons.
Obama arrived in Baltimore shortly before noon and visited Moravia Park Elementary School. About 30 pre-kindergarten students were assembled in the school's library.
The school is home to one of the state's Judy Centers, which offer early childhood education. The centers are named after Judith P. Hoyer, the late wife of Rep. Steny Hoyer, who attended the event.
"I just came by to say 'hi' because I hear you guys are doing all kinds of great work here," said the president, wearing rolled up sleeves.
"Does everybody enjoy school? So, what kinds of things have you been learning in school?" the president asked.
"About animals," one child said.
Obama quizzed the students on basic arithmetic before taking a seat to watch the lesson.
The president was making his first trip to the city since he appeared at a series of fundraisers last June. The stops were intended to underscore the administration's efforts on early-childhood education and manufacturing.
Obama is also announced a memorandum that lays out best practices in reducing federal approvals for major infrastructure projects. The document builds on an executive order the president signed last year intended to cut review timelines for those major projects in half.
The White House has moved quickly in recent days in an attempt to quell the recent scandals, forcing the resignation of Miller on Wednesday and replacing him Thursday. Obama also called on Congress to fully fund the administration's diplomatic security budget request, a response to criticism he has faced over the handling of last year's attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi.
But even before the scandals broke, Congress had spent less effort this year on the economy than on gun control and immigration. Gridlock has left Democratic and Republican lawmakers with few measures they can agree will speed the recovery. And the recent controversies will do little to bridge those divides.
The president's visit to Baltimore mirrored a trip he made to Texas last week to promote plans to increase federal investments in early-childhood education and manufacturing.
Bowe, Ellicott's president, said the company employs about 125 people in the city and exports its products around the globe.
He said the company manufactured all the dredges used in the building of the Panama Canal.
"What we build is mostly an American-made product, and in that respect the strength of companies like ours shows a way forward," Bowe said. "We hope the president uses the opportunity to see in a visceral way how exports can be the way forward for certain parts of the economy."
The otherwise photo-op-friendly trip became more complicated when Republicans noted that Bowe had testified before a House subcommittee Thursday in favor of building the Keystone XL pipeline.
GOP lawmakers have been pressuring the administration to approve the pipeline, which would run from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, despite concerns from environmentalists.
A decision is expected later this year.
Maryland had a 6.6 percent unemployment rate in March, less than the 7.5 percent national rate.
Republicans dismissed the visit as a political stunt. They suggested the administration would have a more positive impact on the economy if the president met with legislative leaders to hammer out an agreement on deficit reduction and entitlement reform.
The president has been holding many of those meetings, but there has been little progress so far.