CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - President Barack Obama hailed new signs of an improving U.S. labor market on Friday as proof that “we are beginning to turn the corner” but warned it would still take time to achieve sustained job growth.
Seeking to maintain momentum after lawmakers approved his cornerstone healthcare overhaul, Obama shifted focus to tackling high unemployment, a problem threatening to damage his Democratic Party’s prospects in November’s pivotal congressional elections.
Obama spoke after a closely watched government employment report showed that non-farm payrolls grew in March, adding 162,000 jobs, the strongest signal yet that the economic recovery is moving onto a more solid footing.
“Today is an encouraging day. We learned that the economy actually produced a substantial number of jobs instead of losing a substantial number of jobs. We are beginning to turn the corner,” Obama told workers at a battery components plant in North Carolina, a key battleground state he won in the 2008 presidential election.
While welcoming the latest report as the best jobs news in more than two years, he cautioned that there was more work to be done to boost employment, his top domestic priority.
“It’s not quick and it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s important to emphasize while we’ve come a long way, we’ve still got a long way to go.”
The labor market has lagged the overall recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s, creating a political challenge for Obama. Unemployment last month remained stuck at 9.7 percent.
But Obama said, “The worst of the storm is over and brighter days are still ahead.”
He also used his North Carolina visit to promote healthcare reform, mindful of polls showing many Americans are skeptical of the sweeping plan after he pushed it through over fierce Republican opposition.
With the healthcare overhaul largely behind him, Obama is pushing legislative measures to overhaul financial regulation in addition to focusing on job creation. He said he expected results in financial regulations reform soon.
“We’re starting to see a framework emerge both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate where my hope ... is that we can actually get this done sometime in the next several weeks,” he said.
With voters nervous over record federal spending, Democrats are advancing job-creation efforts in a series of small steps to avoid the sticker shock of last year’s $787 billion stimulus package.
Obama last month signed into law a bill that includes a $13 billion payroll tax cut for businesses that hire unemployed workers, and $19.5 billion for highway-repair programs -- a package that liberal Democrats said was disappointingly small.
Other measures pending in Congress would expand subsidies for state and local construction bonds, extend jobless benefits through the end of the year, and help states pay the salaries of teachers and other public employees.
But these measures have been delayed by differences between the House and the Senate, where Republicans have greater power to block legislation.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday that unemployment will remain “unacceptably high for a long period of time.”
The political stakes are high for Obama, whose approval rating is down from once-lofty levels amid voter anxiety over the halting economic recovery, high unemployment and the divisive healthcare debate.
A Gallup poll released on Thursday showed registered voters prefer the Republican to the Democratic candidate in their districts by 47 percent to 44 percent in the mid-term congressional elections, the first time Republicans have led in 2010 election preferences since Gallup began such weekly tracking last month.
The poll results came after the House passed the healthcare legislation on March 21 and Obama signed it into law.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham