NEW ORLEANS - President Barack Obama traveled to this waterfront city Friday to push a plan to spend more money on ports from Miami to Tacoma as a way to put Americans back to work.
"Nationally we're falling behind. We're relying on old stuff. ... We should have some new stuff," Obama told a crowd of 650 gathered at the Port of New Orleans. "That is going to help us grow and keep pace with global competition."
Obama has proposed spending $50 billion on improvements on roads and bridges, airports and ports as he looks to boost the U.S.'s infrastructure investment, which has dropped 50 percent since 1960 and lags behind other nations, including China.
"We should close wasteful tax loopholes that don't help our jobs, don't grow our economy, and then invest that money in things that actually do create jobs and grow our economy," he said. "And one of those things is building new roads and bridges and schools and ports. That creates jobs."
Obama arrived in New Orleans as criticism of his health-care law mounts. The website where consumers enroll continues to have glitches, and millions of people are losing insurance plans Obama promised they could keep. In a national TV interview Thursday, the president apologized for the problems.
"I took up this cause knowing it was hard - there was a reason why no one other president had done it," he said in New Orleans.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., joined Obama aboard Air Force One, but she did not appear with him at his speech. Landrieu, who is expected to face a tough re-election next year, has called on Obama to extend the March 31 deadline for Americans to buy insurance or face fines.
Republicans on Capitol Hill were uncharacteristically quiet about Obama's speech, but the GOP did note Landrieu's absence. "It's clear Democrats running for re-election in 2014 are struggling to deal with a deeply unpopular health-care law and a president whose approval ratings continue to nosedive," RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
Although Obama spoke briefly about health care, the bulk of his speech was designed to demonstrate that he has not been sidetracked on the economy.
Obama urged lawmakers to hammer out a long-range budget, rewrite the nation's immigration laws and pass a farm bill that has stalled amid deep partisan differences. He said he hoped money for infrastructure improvements, including ports, could be part of a larger budget deal next month.
"Helping American businesses grow, creating more jobs, these are not Democratic or Republican priorities," he said. "They are priorities that everybody, regardless of party, should be able to get behind."
Obama pledged in 2010 to double exports by 2015, but the U.S. is not on track to meet that goal despite his efforts to develop new trade agreements and attract more foreign direct investment. Exports have grown more than 50 percent since he took office, but a study by the center-left Brookings Institution found that the nation is $200 billion behind his goal.
"Broad-based, jobs-creating investment in upgrades, expansion and modernization of our nation's transportation network is an essential component of any effort to boost U.S. exports and increase competitiveness," according to a statement by the National Association of Manufacturers after the speech.
Alongside Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Obama toured the port facilities, walking under a pair of large cranes and around a line of shipping containers. The U.S. government helped pay for upgrades to the port, where petroleum and agricultural products are shipped to countries including Mexico and Singapore. The region's exports have increased 140 percent since 2009.
U.S. ports support more than 13 million jobs nationwide. Last year, every $1 billion in exports supported nearly 5,000 jobs in the United States, according to the White House.
"All these opportunities and challenges, they're not going to magically fix themselves," Obama said. "We've got to do it. So the sooner we take care of business, the better. And I know if there's one thing that members of Congress from both parties want, it's smart infrastructure projects that create good jobs in their districts."
Obama traveled to Miami from New Orleans on Friday to headline a trio of fundraisers for the Democratic Party, which hopes to hold onto its slim majority in the Senate and pick up seats in the House of Representatives in next year's elections.