SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — More than half the nation disapproves of President Barack Obama's policies to reduce stubbornly high unemployment, a new Associated Press-GfK poll said Friday as Obama refocused his job-creation efforts on a business-friendly vision emphasizing innovation and exports to other countries.
Marking the halfway point in his four-year term, the president used a visit to Schenectady, birthplace of the General Electric Co., to declare that his job is "putting our economy into overdrive" and to announce a restructured presidential advisory board stressing increased employment and greater business opportunities abroad.
"America's home to inventors and dreamers and builders and creators," Obama told workers at G.E.'s 23-acre turbine and generator plant. "You guys are a model of what's possible."
The trip came as a new AP-GfK poll showed more than half the nation disapproving the way Obama is handling the economy, 53 percent to 47 percent. That's actually a bit more favorable than two months ago, but those who say they see economic improvement has dropped to just 35 percent from 38 percent in August and 40 percent a year ago.
Lack of hope is greatest with lower-income people and those in the Northeast and the West, signaling potential political trouble spots for Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
Obama's New York visit was the first of many treks during the second half of his term that the president is expected to take to put a more hopeful countenance on the economy amid high unemployment – now at 9.4 percent. Yet, while the White House was eager to highlight economic successes such as General Electric, Obama took pains not to oversell an optimistic view to a skeptical public.
"It's a great thing that the economy is growing, but it's not growing fast enough yet to make up for the damage that was done by the recession," he said.
Overall, 53 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is governing, and that includes a narrow majority of all-important independent voters. The job approval numbers represent a slight uptick from November and come after Obama negotiated with Republicans on a tax package and sought to build bridges with the business community.
Displaying stepped-up outreach, Obama on Friday named GE's chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, as the head of a Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. The panel replaces Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which had been chaired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Obama announced late Thursday that Volcker, as expected, was ending his tenure on the panel.
Immelt has been an advocate of alternative forms of energy, and the GE facility Obama visited, the company's largest energy plant, is the future site of GE's advanced battery manufacturing program. New battery technology has become something of an Obama pet project as a symbol of innovation, clean energy and job creation
The trip followed on the heels of a state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao that featured announcement of new trade deals worth about $45 billion and vows to ease restrictions on U.S. investments in China.
"We want to open up their markets so we have two-way trade, not just one-way trade," the president said.
As Obama made his pitch Friday, the top-ranking African-American in Congress called on the president to make a more concerted effort to help hard-hit minority communities. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said the recession had left minorities with extraordinarily high unemployment rates, and he called on Obama to direct at least 10 percent of any recovery efforts into communities that have had 20 percent or higher poverty rates for 30 years.
In Immelt, Obama has a useful corporate ally. As chief executive of a multinational company, Immelt was one of 20 CEOs who met with the president during a daylong summit at Blair House last month. He was one of 14 U.S. business leaders invited to meet with Chinese President Hu this week at the White House and was among the guests for the state dinner that followed.
General Electric is a multinational conglomerate with interests than range from energy to finances to media. GE is also a huge federal government contractor, and is currently on tap to build an engine for a Joint Strike Fighter that the administration doesn't want but that Congress insists on financing. On Friday, the White House renewed the president's threat to veto spending bills that contain money for the engine.
The GE plant is benefiting from a power turbine contract with India announced during Obama's Southeast Asia trip in November.
GE reported 52 percent growth in earnings on Friday, a result of increased equipment orders and lending. GE stock gained 5.8 percent, leading the 30 stocks that make up the Dow Jones industrial average.
His appointment adds another corporate insider to the White House orbit, underscoring the administration's efforts to build stronger ties to the business community. Earlier this month, Obama named former Commerce Secretary and JPMorgan Chase executive William Daley as chief of staff.
The change also signals Obama's intention to shift from policies that were designed to stabilize the economy after the 2008 financial meltdown to a renewed focus on increasing employment, a vexing task that could affect his re-election efforts. The White House says the board's mission will be to help generate ideas from the private sector to speed up economic growth and promote American competitiveness.
The Chamber of Commerce approved of the appointment, calling it a "promising step" toward creating jobs and enhancing U.S. competitiveness. But the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which brings together manufacturers and the United Steelworkers union, dismissed Immelt as "an outsourcing CEO" whose appointment would "alienate working class voters."
Indeed, GE has increasingly relied on foreign workers, a point Immelt alluded to Friday.
"I know that despite the fact that 60 percent of GE revenues are outside the United States," he said, "I personally and this country share responsibility and accountability to make sure this is the most competitive and productive country in the world
Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, blamed Immelt for GE's decision to close plants in Virginia, Massachusetts and Ohio. Noting that two plants made incandescent bulbs, Buffenbarger said: "We are rewarding the guy who is turning off America's lights, literally."