For an 11th-hour deal that averted a potential economic catastrophe, President Obama didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the deficit reduction package during his Rose Garden remarks Tuesday. Four paragraphs, to be exact.

Then he switched the subject.

“In the coming months, I’ll continue also to fight for what the American people care most about: new jobs, higher wages and faster economic growth,” Obama said. “While Washington has been absorbed in this debate about deficits, people across the country are asking what we can do to help the father looking for work. What are we going to do for the single mom who’s seen her hours cut back at the hospital? What are we going to do to make it easier for businesses to put up that ‘now hiring’ sign?”

Obama’s move to highlight his focus on job creation and economic growth represents a preemptive effort by the president to address his rivals in this 2012 re-election campaign.

The sluggish economy is likely to be the top issue among voters three years after Obama promised them a better future. A jobs report last month showed the unemployment rate had jumped from 7.8 percent in Jan. 2009 to 9.2 percent.

Already the president’s Republican rivals have hit him on jobs and the economy, and a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 52 percent disapproved of Obama’s handling of jobs. (The news was even worse for Republicans: 65 percent dispproved of the GOP’s efforts.)

The public wants “us to get this economy growing and adding jobs,” Obama said Tuesday. Then, perhaps stung by criticism from his liberal base that the $2.4 trillion deficit reduction plan contains only spending cuts and no tax increases, he added: “And while deficit reduction is part of that agenda, it is not the whole agenda. Growing the economy isn’t just about cutting spending.”

Obama called on Congress to extend the middle-class tax cuts “so that you have more money in your paychecks next year. If you’ve got more money in your paycheck, you’re more likely to spend it. And that means small businesses and medium-sized businesses and large businesses will all have more customers. That means they’ll be in a better position to hire.”

The president has tried several times before to focus his message on jobs — such as during his State of the Union address this year — but with the economy struggling he recognizes he must do more to convince a skeptical public. At a town hall event at the University of Maryland last month, Obama said his biggest regret since taking office was not being more blunt with the public about the depths of the economic crisis and how long it would take to recover.

As he has done repeatedly, Obama again Tuesday called on Congress to approve three international trade deals that he says will help the United States create jobs.

“He will primarily focus, as he always does, on growing the economy and creating jobs,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday, when asked whether Obama would talk about the deficit reduction package when he hits the road again Wednesday after a month-long break. Obama, who turns 50 on Thursday, will travel Wednesday afternoon to Chicago for a pair of birthday party fundraisers.

“He looks forward to spending even more time now focusing on — specifically on things we can do to grow the economy and create jobs in the near term,” Carney said.

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