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As Obama touts economic growth, mind is still on health care

President Obama speaks during an appearance Thursday at ArcelorMittal in Cleveland, Ohio. (DAVID MAXWELL/EPA)

President Obama has said economic growth is his “North Star.” His aides say he wakes up every day thinking about how to create jobs.

But as Obama visited a steel mill here Thursday afternoon to tout his administration’s work to help the auto industry and American manufacturing, it was clear that his focus had been interrupted by the problems that are besetting his health-care law and threatening to eclipse the rest of his second-term agenda.

The president spent more than an hour Thursday morning in the White House, accepting blame for the flawed rollout, saying he didn’t know how difficult it would be to implement the legislation and offering what he described as a fix for Americans who are losing coverage they like.

The news conference overshadowed what Obama had to say a few hours later after flying here for a 25-minute speech to manufacturing workers at ArcelorMittal, a steel company that has grown in recent years as the auto industry has recovered.

To an audience of factory workers in yellow hard hats, Obama gave his regular pitch for rebuilding the manufacturing industry, arguing for a wide range of policies that would help the sector and the overall economy.

President Obama apologized after taking heat for the rollout of his signature health-care law. But sometimes, ‘I’m sorry’ isn't enough. (The Washington Post)

“What we’ve been trying to do is rebuild a new foundation for growth and prosperity to protect ourselves from future crises,” he said. “We should do everything we can to revitalize American manufacturing.”

Yet it was impossible to ignore how badly the problems with Obama’s health-care law could hobble the rest of his agenda. He addressed the troubles several times in his Cleveland remarks, striking a notably defiant tone after appearing more contrite in Washington.

“We have to do everything we can to make sure every American has access to quality, affordable health care — period,” the president said. “You may have read, we had some problems last month with Web sites. I’m not happy about that.”

“But we always knew this was going to be hard” he continued. “But I want everybody here to understand: I am going to see this through.”

Republicans found much to like — and ridicule — in Obama’s predicament.

Don Stewart, communications director for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), tweeted: “Reporters, remember, the President’s going to Cleveland today to talk about the economy. That’s probably your lede, right?” A “lede” is journalism speak for the top of a news story.

Still, if he wants to accomplish a key campaign goal — creating 1 million manufacturing jobs by the end of his second term — Obama will need to achieve more in terms of strengthening the manufacturing sector.

The manufacturing revival has largely stalled. The industry has added only 35,000 jobs in the first 10 months of this year, compared with 341,000 jobs in the same period last year.

On Thursday, Lockheed Martin, citing government budget cuts, announced that it plans to cut 4,000 jobs, including 500 at a factory in Akron, Ohio, just 40 minutes from where Obama spoke.

The president has proposed policies that could accelerate hiring, including establishing more manufacturing hubs that link companies and community colleges and investing in cutting-edge manufacturing projects. But the ideas are lost in Congress, which is almost singularly focused on problems with Obama’s health-care law.

After the government shutdown ended last month, Obama took to the airwaves to announce that he has three remaining goals for the year: forging a budget agreement, passing a farm bill and overhauling immigration laws.

Neither a budget agreement nor a farm bill seems to be in the offing. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said flatly that he won’t take up a Senate-passed immigration bill.

Conspicuously absent during Obama’s remarks was the health-care law. But it promises to dominate attention until it is working more smoothly.

Even as he confronts intense criticism for the implementation, he said he will not abandon its overarching purpose.

“We’re not going to go back to the old system because the old system was broken,” he said here in Cleveland. “We’re not going to let folks who pay their premiums on time get jerked around. And we’re not going to walk away from the 40 million Americans without health insurance. We are not going to gut this law. We will fix what needs to be fixed, but we’re going to make the Affordable Care Act work.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.

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