Obama on economy: 'The storm is receding'

By Julianne Pepitone, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The past two years of recession have been "difficult," but "the storm is receding," President Obama said in a speech to business leaders Tuesday.

At the annual meeting of the Business Council, a group of of 150 executives from private businesses, Obama said the recession is "not just an economic problem -- it's a human tragedy."

The president touched on several major topics throughout the 35-minute speech, including the labor market, education, health care reform, business innovation and financial overhaul.

"Last year the economy was in free fall," Obama said. "Now it's growing again. In fact, we've seen the fastest turnaround in growth in nearly three decades."

Obama said his administration "has a relentless focus" on recovery, and that "spurring job creation and economic expansion continues to be our No. 1 domestic priority."

Jobs: More than 8 million people have lost jobs throughout the course of the downturn, Obama noted. He added that the economy was shedding 750,000 jobs each month during last year's Business Council speech, but "today, America is adding jobs again."

Obama said U.S. businesses are key to helping the nation emerge from the recession, and "common ground" among those leaders is paramount.

"By no stretch of the imagination can we declare victory," Obama said. "Not until the millions of our neighbors who are looking for work can find work ... and not until we face the weaknesses in our economy that preceded this recession, problems that have been allowed to fester for decades."

Education: By 2020, "America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world," Obama said.

His administration has made progress toward that goal, Obama added, by passing legislation to make school more affordable and investing funds in community colleges.

Health care reform: Obama called the cost of U.S. health care an "undeniable drag" on the economy and a "crushing burden" to families and businesses alike. The passage of sweeping reform legislation in March was "good for America's businesses," he said.

Business innovation: The U.S. economy should be "fostering and rewarding innovation" implemented in the country's businesses, Obama said.

"That's why we're building the infrastructure of tomorrow," he said, noting investments in expanded broadband access, health information technology, clean energy facilities and a high-speed rail network.

The administration plans to invest more than 3% of gross domestic product to business research and development, Obama said, as well as a goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years.

Financial reform: Obama also said he was "pleased" Republican legislators dropped a filibuster on debate of Wall Street reform, which he considers "a reasonable, non-ideological approach to target root problems in our financial sector."

The proposed reform is expected to target transparency on derivatives and other complicated financial instruments that Wall Street firms used to game the system, Obama said, calling out AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) in particular.

"Part of what led to this crisis was that firms like AIG made huge and risky bets ... in ways that defied accountability or even common sense," he said.

But large financial firms shouldn't shoulder all of the blame, Obama said. He noted "decisions made around kitchen tables all across America by folks who took on ... financial obligations that they knew they couldn't afford" and "millions of others [who] were, frankly, duped."

Terrorist plot and oil spill : Outside of legislative and labor market debates, other nationwide issues also peppered the speech. Obama opened his comments with an update that authorities had in their custody a suspect in a botched terrorist attack Saturday night in Manhattan's Times Square.

While Obama did not refer to the suspect by name, Pakistani-American citizen Faisal Shahzad, 30, was arrested Monday at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Shahzad will appear Tuesday in a Manhattan federal courtroom to face formal charges in the case.

Obama also mentioned the economic effects last month's BP (BP) oil spill, "which is going to affect the lives and livelihoods of people all along the Gulf Coast, from the fishing industry to the tourism industry." To top of page

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