WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is leaving behind scandal-focused Washington to focus on the country's slowly improving jobs picture.
Obama is to fly by helicopter Friday about 40 miles north to Baltimore, which has had its share of tough times in the move from an industrial to service economy. But Maryland has experienced steady job growth so far this year as part of a nationwide economic recovery.
The White House said the trip is designed to focus on three areas of needed investment to grow the middle class -- jobs, skills and opportunity.
The president plans to highlight one of the manufacturing companies still thriving in the city by speaking at Ellicott Dredges. It makes equipment for excavation under water and on beachfronts around the world.
Obama also plans to visit a community center that provides job training to parents and an elementary school that provides early childhood education. Obama has proposed that public preschool be available for all 4-year-olds from low-income families.
At Ellicott Dredges, Obama was to announce that he signed a memorandum to cut timelines in half for the permit process for major federal infrastructure projects. The White House said it's an important step in his goal of creating jobs by making urgent repairs to roads, bridges and railways.
The focus on Obama's economic agenda comes at the end of a week that has been consumed by a trio of controversies. They include the targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service, the administration's response to last year's deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya and the seizure of Associated Press phone records by the Justice Department as part of a leak investigation.
Obama's turn to the economy comes in a state that added 4,700 jobs in March, according to preliminary data released last month by the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. That marked Maryland's fourth consecutive month of job growth. The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation says the state has recovered nearly 97 percent of the jobs lost in the recession. Maryland's unemployment rate held at 6.6 percent in March.
"Last year, we had the best-rated job creation of any state in our region and we have very nearly recovered 100 percent of the jobs that we lost during the recession," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said at a bill-signing ceremony on Thursday.
Associated Press writer Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md., contributed to this report.