But he also hammered Congress, chiding lawmakers for moving slowly on what he said were important initiatives to improve the economy and educate the future workforce.
“America thrives when we build things better than the rest of the world,” he told a friendly audience of nearly 1,500 here at the Rolls-Royce Crosspointe plant, set among stands of pines in the flatlands outside Richmond. “I want to make stuff here and sell it over there.”
Obama spoke on a day when the Labor Department issued another positive employment report, showing that the economy added 227,000 jobs in February.
That marks the third consecutive month the economy has added at least 200,000 jobs, although the unemployment rate remains at 8.3 percent as a half-million people rejoined the job hunt.
Part of the job growth was in the manufacturing sector, a particular focus of Obama’s economic message.
He used his appearance here to highlight a $1 billion proposal — contained in his budget request now before Congress — to create a nationwide network of 15 institutes for manufacturing innovation.
The centers would bring together industry, colleges and universities, and government agencies, as well as invest in new technologies, to help train workers for what the president has called the manufacturing jobs of the future.
Obama also announced steps to use executive authority to authorize $45 million in existing resources to develop a pilot program for those institutes.
The money does not require congressional approval, which he joked during his remarks was hard to come by.
With populist overtones, he pitched his plan to change the corporate tax rate, end tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas and make college more affordable to ensure an educated workforce in the future — key components of a middle-class-focused message that he has delivered in recent months.
Obama also called on Congress to support his proposals that he said would help train 2 million people in the coming years for good-paying manufacturing jobs.
“At a time when so many Americans are looking for work, no job opening should go unfilled just because a person did not get the training needed,” he said. “We have got to make this economy ready for tomorrow.”
Before speaking, Obama toured the plant where parts for jet engines are made. Obama said Rolls-Royce Crosspointe is planning to add 140 new local jobs as it expands into a second facility here within two years.
Wearing safety goggles, Obama chatted with workers as he walked along the pristine factory floor. Some of the machines, used for precise measuring, had robotic arms. Obama pressed the “go” button on one of them, under close watch.
“It’s not exactly lightning quick,” the worker told him, as the arm then moved into action.
The visit here came three days after Obama appeared in North Carolina, another key swing state with an imperiled manufacturing base.
It also marks Obama’s fourth appearance in Virginia in the past six months to announce economic initiatives, emphasizing the importance his campaign places on the commonwealth. Obama made history in 2008 by becoming the first Democrat in four decades to carry Virginia, but his reelection campaign is expecting a competitive race here in November.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the state’s GOP primary on Tuesday. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who has endorsed Romney, greeted Obama at the airport and joined him on his factory tour.
At the airport, McDonnell gave Obama a golf glove bearing the slogan, “Virginia is for Lovers.”
“He was very impressed we knew he wore a left-handed glove,” McDonnell said later at the factory. “I told him we had done our opposition research.”
But Pete Snyder, chairman of the Virginia GOP’s Victory 2012 effort, said in a call organized by the Republican National Committee that “what you’re going to see today is a really stark contrast on stage between the economic record of the president and the economic record and leadership of Bob McDonnell.”
Snyder said that Virginia’s unemployment rate – 6.1 percent in December — was significantly lower than the national rate. He attributed that to the relative effectiveness of McDonnell’s policies compared with Obama’s.
After Obama spoke, McDonnell told reporters that he supported the kinds of partnerships between schools, government and employers that the president outlined.
But he said Obama should be talking more about cutting bureaucracy, regulation and corporate tax rates, saying the time has come to stop talking about jobs and start putting the policies in place to create them.
“This is going to be the issue,” McDonnell said, adding that he believed Romney would soon wrap up the Republican nomination. “Who has the best vision to restore the American dream?”
Striking an overt campaign message to close his speech, Obama told the crowd that “I did not run for this office to get back to where we were. I ran for this office to get where we need to be.”
“And we’re going to get there,” he said.
Staff writers David Nakamura and Ben Pershing in Washington contributed to this report.