INDIANAPOLIS >> Refocusing on the nation’s economic struggles, President Barack Obama welcomed news Friday that the economy unexpectedly added more than 200,000 jobs last month. "We are regaining our footing," he said.
The president spoke during a visit to a transmission plant in Indianapolis, even as the killing of Osama bin Laden continued to dominate headlines and much of the president’s time.
From Indianapolis he was to travel to Fort Campbell, Ky., to thank the Navy SEALs who stormed bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and shot him dead, and the helicopter operators who got them there.
But first, at Allison Transmission in Indianapolis, the president promoted his clean energy agenda while offering an optimistic assessment of the economy’s growth. April’s labor market report marked the third straight month in which more than 200,000 jobs were created, the best three-month hiring spree in five years and a sign of increasing confidence in the private sector.
"We’ve made this progress at a time when our economy’s been facing some serious headwinds," the president told workers, citing high gas prices and the earthquake in Japan.
"There will undoubtedly be some more challenges ahead, but the fact is that we are still making progress," he said. "And that proves how resilient the American economy is, and how resilient the American worker is, and that we can take a hit and we can keep on going forward."
Without bin Laden’s death to overshadow it, the trip to Indianapolis to showcase a transmission plant that produces systems for hybrid vehicles would have policy and political consequences. Obama has been promoting his energy policies as a long-term answer to rising oil prices and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The skyrocketing cost of gasoline had caused Obama’s public approval numbers to dip until bin Laden’s death shoved them back up. What’s more, Indiana is a battleground state that Obama won narrowly in 2008, by less than 30,000 votes.
Upon arrival in Indianapolis, Obama was greeted by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is contemplating a presidential run and would be considered a top contender for the Republican nomination to challenge the president next year.
Still, the centerpiece of the day for Obama was the stop at Fort Campbell, which came as al-Qaida issued a statement threatening retaliation against America for its leaders’ death. The statement posted on militant websites said that Americans’ "happiness will turn to sadness." Its authenticity could not be independently confirmed.
Fort Campbell is home to the 101st Airborne Division, and many of its combat teams have returned recently from tours of duty in Afghanistan. But its main draw for Obama is the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the highly specialized Army unit that carried Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney would say only that Obama planned to meet privately with "special operators" involved in the bin Laden raid five days ago. But a U.S. official briefed on the trip confirmed that the president would be meeting with some of the SEALs who were on the mission, plus the helicopter crew members who flew them there.
In addition to that private meeting, the president will address soldiers who have returned recently from Afghanistan, speaking in a public forum likely to highlight the military triumph over bin Laden.
But the president has said there’s no need to "spike the ball" and revel in bin Laden’s death, and Carney said that Obama’s comments would reflect that attitude.
"I don’t expect you’ll hear the president spiking the ball and gloating when he speaks to troops returning from Afghanistan," Carney told reporters traveling with the president Friday on Air Force One. "The point he will make is that while the successful mission against Osama bin Laden was an historic and singular event, it doesn’t by any means mean that we are finished with the war against al-Qaida. The fight goes on."
That was underscored by the new al-Qaida statement, the first since bin Laden’s death, and a reminder that despite his death, threats to America remain.
"We are aware of it. We’ve seen the reports," Carney said. "What it does obviously is acknowledge the obvious, which is that Osama bin Laden was killed on Sunday night by U.S. forces. … We’re quite aware of the potential for (terrorist) activity and are highly vigilant on that matter for that reason."
The Army unit at Fort Campbell, known as Night Stalkers, has fought in nearly every U.S. conflict, from Grenada to Afghanistan, and was memorialized in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." Many of its missions are classified and among its primary duties are flying special forces commandos behind enemy lines.
They are equipped with Black Hawk, Chinook and MH-6 Little Bird helicopters. Aviation experts said a helicopter used in the bin Laden raid appeared to be a stealthier, top secret and never-before-seen version of a routinely used special ops helicopter. The helicopter made a hard landing and was destroyed by the military team at the site.
Obama’s visit to Fort Campbell comes a day after he traveled to New York to lay a wreath at ground zero and talk with firefighters, police officers, and family members of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that bin Laden orchestrated.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.