Obama: Don't Celebrate Jobs Yet

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President Obama says the nation's battered workforce is "beginning to turn the corner" onto a street with more "Help Wanted" signs. U.S. employers added 162,000 jobs last month, after shedding workers for most of the last two years. Obama is taking some credit for the turnaround, but he warns there's still a long way to go.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama says the nation's battered workforce is beginning to turn a corner - his words - onto a street with more help wanted signs. U.S. employers added 162,000 jobs last month after shedding workers over most of the last two years. Mr. Obama is taking some credit for the turnaround but warns there's still a long way to go.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Some of the new jobs added last month were temporary Census position, but private employers added about three-quarters of the new jobs. President Obama called the new numbers from the Labor Department encouraging -a word he hasn't gotten to use very often in talking about the U.S. job market.

President BARACK OBAMA: More Americans woke up, got dressed and headed to work in an office or factory or storefront. More folks are feeling the sense of pride and satisfaction that comes with a hard-earned and well-deserved paycheck at the end of a long week of work.

HORSLEY: One company that's hiring is Celgard, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The firm makes membranes used in advanced batteries for electric cars and the like. Mr. Obama toured the Celgard factory yesterday then took questions from employees. He noted that a $49 million grant from the economic stimulus approved last year is allowing Celgard to expand and hire up to 300 new workers.

Pres. OBAMA: The next time somebody asks you when you're at the grocery store, well, what does this Recovery Act do? You can tell them.

HORSLEY: Celgard is opening a second factory in Concord, North Carolina. Mr. Obama says the U.S. will soon have the capacity to produce 40 percent of the world's lithium ion batteries, up from just 2 percent when he took office.

Pres. OBAMA: And that's the kind of strategy we need: helping the private sector thrive in entirely new industries, the industries of the future. It's a strategy that will not only create jobs in the near term but also sustain growth and opportunity in the long run.

HORSLEY: In the near term, though, the job recovery has been slow. Employers would have to hire a lot more workers to make a meaningful dent in the unemployment rate. It's still hovering at a painful 9.7 percent.

In Charlotte, mass layoffs in the banking industry have rippled through the economy, pushing the local jobless rate to nearly 13 percent.

Pres. OBAMA: The truth is these have been a very tough two years for North Carolina and they've been a tough two years for the United States of America.

HORSLEY: Since the beginning of the recession, the U.S. has lost more than eight million jobs.

Celgard employees listen politely as the president spoke, and they applauded his commitment to their industry. But some employees, like Joyce Ravis(ph), questioned other parts of Mr. Obama's agenda.

Ms. JOYCE RAVIS (Employee, Celgard): In the economy times that we have now, is it a wise decision to add more taxes to us with the health care? Because we are overtaxed as it is.

HORSLEY: President Obama defended the new health care law as necessarily both morally and economically. He also defended the taxes used to pay for the plan, though he said those taxes are unlikely to hit workers making less than a quarter million dollars a year. He noted that 95 percent of America's workers got a tax cut under the stimulus.

Republican Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia criticized the pace of job growth yesterday and called for a change of course in Washington. Mr. Obama said that would be a mistake.

Pres. OBAMA: I do think it's important for the American people to remember the failed economic policies that got us into this mess just so we make sure we don't return to them.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama said building a stronger economy won't be quick or easy, but he offered his own assurance that the worst of the economic storm has passed.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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