STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- After a week of grappling with the fast-breaking crisis in Egypt, President Barack Obama escaped from the Rose Garden for a few hours on Thursday to remind Americans that, yes, the economy is still his top priority.
But on a day dominated by the escalating government-sponsored crackdown against foreign journalists and human rights workers on Cairo's streets -- and Obama's own preference for visiting important but esoteric green-jobs sites -- it wasn't clear whether the president's message was getting through. Still transfixed by the events in Egypt, few of the 24/7 cable news outlets broadcast the president's speech live.
Obama has to try to sell the message, his aides say, despite Egypt's headline-grabbing events that threatened to hijack the jobs-and-revival message he unveiled in a State of the Union address, a speech that now seems as though it was delivered a decade ago. And try he did Thursday, during an hours-long trip to this small college town in central Pennsylvania, stealing time between meetings with his West Wing foreign policy advisers.
"What's ironic about his situation is that, historically, these foreign policy crises usually result in an increase in presidential popularity as the nation comes together," says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor and presidential specialist. "But he knows that, at the same time, he's got to stay on message on the economy and follow up with the promises he made in the State of the Union, or it will come back to haunt him."
Press secretary Robert Gibbs said that, despite the Middle East turmoil, the White House knows that creating U.S. jobs is still Job 1.
"This is an administration that obviously has spent a considerable amount of time working ... on Egypt but probably a majority of what we're doing to work on aspects of the economic recovery," he told reporters on Wednesday.
Just a week ago, Obama's long-promised pivot to jobs seemed attainable in the wake of his well-received speech to Congress. Outgoing senior adviser David Axelrod said the administration finally faced a "clear field in front of us" after two years of bruising battles with Republicans -- including the fight over health care reform -- and a series of unexpected derailments, including the BP oil disaster and disastrous midterm elections.
But the sudden uprising in Egypt -- a daunting foreign policy crisis for any president -- has dominated the White House agenda, and news headlines, for a week and shows no signs of receding. Fears of a massive, increasingly bloody confrontation between the government and protesters in the streets of Cairo gripped the White House and the State Department on Thursday.
Meanwhile, calls are growing louder for Obama to forcefully shove Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally and Mideast peace broker, toward the exit.
But one former State Department official told POLITICO that the president needs to "avoid the trap" of thinking he needs to be in every meeting on Egypt, or he'll look foolish for strolling through a factory in small-town America while violence erupts on the streets of Cairo.
Gibbs seemed to acknowledge that point Wednesday when he tied the ultimate importance of the Egyptian crisis to the American economy.
"I don't think that anything that's happening is going to change that, whether it is their personal economic situation," he said, referring to Egypt's high jobless rate, which analysts agree has fueled the upheaval. "But we understand what peace and stability, and we understand what uncertainty and instability bring to the global economy and to the global economic recovery."
Obama, who loves a good road trip, seemed energized by his trip to the "Happy Valley" campus of Penn State, which won him several days of positive media coverage in a crucial part of this battleground state. But it was hardly the populist fist-pump for jobs that many Democrats, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, have been clamoring for.
By heading to this small college town, Obama chose a welcoming island of blue in a decidedly red political district: central Pennsylvania's largely rural 5th, which backed John McCain 55 percent to 45 percent in 2008. While the unemployment rate in State College is relatively low at about 6 percent, the jobless rate in surrounding counties hovers between 7 percent and 10 percent.
The event began with the president touring two Penn State labs that make cutting-edge, energy-efficient equipment for buildings. Peering at the solar panels and green roof systems in one of the labs, Obama joked, "My fifth-grade science experiment looked just like this." He then delivered a quick speech to a receptive crowd of college students on "Winning the Future," reiterating his SOTU theme of American innovation and a manufacturing revival.
But the White House news of the day had already been made, on the Air Force One flight from Washington to Pennsylvania: Gibbs, during the press gaggle, demanded that Egyptian authorities stop the widespread detention and harassment of Western journalists.
At the same time, the biggest economic news of the week hadn't happened yet: the much-awaited Labor Department report on January employment, which is expected to show an increasingly robust recovery, is due for release Friday.
There were some signs that the labor news could be positive. Earlier this week, payroll tracker ADP released a report showing that the U.S. economy created a healthy 187,000 private-sector jobs in January, and another firm reported that companies plan to fire the fewest number of employees since 1993. On Thursday, there was more upbeat news: 42,000 fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week than the week before.
In his speech at State College, Obama, addressing an audience that included legendary Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno, said that if the United States is going to be the global leader in job creation and economic growth, it will require "being smarter, working harder and working together" as a nation. "We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," he said.
Reaching that goal, he added, requires innovation, "what America does better than any country on Earth. That's what we do."
Penn State, he added, is backing a new Philadelphia facility that "will lead to even more jobs," part of the president's economic blueprint to have government promote -- and, in some cases, help finance -- creative business ventures, particularly ones that advance the nation's manufacture of clean renewable-energy components such as windmills and solar panels. "You show us the best ideas to change your game on the ground, and we will show you the money," he said.
Obama also continued his pitch for Congress to eliminate oil and gas subsidies as a way to pay for that help, despite a recent setback for the issue on the Hill, and outlined a series of energy-efficiency measures. But even this optimistic litany was briefly overshadowed by events -- in this case, Sunday's Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers.
The Big Game intruded on Obama's last foray into the heartland to promote his vision for accelerating the economic revival. Last week, when the president -- a staunch Chicago Bears fan -- stopped in Manitowoc, Wis., near Green Bay, to tour a manufacturer of energy-efficient lighting components, local officials greeted him and handed him an autographed Packers jersey. When he mentioned the trip Thursday at Penn State, Steelers fans in the audience cheerfully booed him.
"I've got some love for the Steelers!" Obama shouted in response.