President Barack Obama kicked off his White House to Main Street tour in Allentown Friday, promoting his employment and economical revitalization plans for the nation.
The president said he selected Allentown because the city continues to financially struggle, as the decades of manufacturing and industrial jobs move elsewhere.
While the President thrilled many area residents with his first official visit to Lehigh Valley since being elected to the country's highest office, it was at Lehigh County Carbon Community College that he delivered his main message.
More than 800 guests, including local government officials, school administrators, small and large business leaders, nonprofit executives, housewives, blue collar workers, students and special guests, packed the room.
"It is good to be back in the Lehigh Valley," Obama said. "It's been about a year and a half since I last visited Allentown and Bethlehem when I was running for this office. And while it was a pleasure to be here as a candidate, it is an honor to be here as your president."
"I want you to know that I'm grateful – grateful for the opportunity to serve you in these challenging times for America; and grateful for this chance to get out of Washington and spend the day in the Lehigh Valley, talking with folks about this very tough economy."
Obama addressed unemployment that has gripped the country during the past two years. He said the recession has caused too many members of our American family to feel the "gut" punch of a pink slip.
"Every one of us knows someone who has been swept up by this storm: neighbors who have lost their homes or their health care; friends who have used up their savings and put off their retirement; relatives who have downscaled their dreams – or dropped them entirely," he told the crowd. "I've heard these stories in every corner of America, and I see them in the letters I read each night."
He was encouraged by the Labor Department statistics released Friday.
"The unemployment rate ticked down, instead of up," he said. "And the report also found that we lost about 160,000 fewer jobs over the last two months than we had previously thought. It's the best jobs report we've seen since 2007."
He called the report "good news," but said citizens need to recognize there is still a long way to go.
"I still consider one job lost one job too many. And as I said yesterday at a jobs conference in Washington, good trends don't pay the rent. We need to grow jobs and get America back to work as quickly as we can," he added.
Obama said the journey is bound to have setbacks or struggles along the way. "There will be more bumps in the road," he said. "But the direction is clear. When you think about how this year began, today's report is a welcome sign that there are better days ahead."
Obama said when he ran for office, issues like saving financiaI institutions and rescuing the country's major auto industry were not on his "to-do" list.
"They weren't even on my want-to-do list," he quipped. But I did them because they were necessary to save our country from an even greater catastrophe."
The president said passage of the Recovery Act saved up to 1.6 million jobs, stopped the freefall, and lifted the economy to the point where it's growing for the first time in more than a year.
He said many companies are still worried about hiring, and some are still trying to get out of the red brought on by this past year's economic recession. He said the current financial picture is not unusual when a recession hits.
"We need to do every responsible thing we can, right now, to get our businesses hiring again so that our friends and neighbors can go back to work," he said.
The president pledged to discuss with congress how to jumpstart the private sector and how to get Americans back to work.
"In addition to dealing with the immediate crisis we face today, we also have to face up to the challenges necessary to strengthen our economy for the long haul, including a broken health insurance system that costs families and businesses double-digit premium increases year-after-year," he said.
He also highlighted the mission to take the education system into the 21st century, which includes the communty college system.
"We are working to upgrade America's most under-appreciated asset – community colleges just like this one," Obama said to rousing applause.
Obama said he realizes he and the nation face many challenges.
"Well, I didn't run for president to sweep our messes under the rug with the next election in mind," he said. "I ran for president to solve our problems – once and for all – with the next generation in mind.
"I know times are tough – but I promise you I won't rest until they get better. I know you may not agree with every decision I make – but I promise I will always tell you the truth about why I make them. And I know that we can come together to forge a brighter future so that places like Allentown, and Bethlehem, and the Lehigh Valley don't just survive, but thrive.
"That's why we're here. That's what we're fighting for. And as long as I have the privilege of being your President, I will always be right there, with you, in the thick of that fight."