By Jeff Mason
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pledged on a trip to Texas on Thursday to take steps to accelerate economic growth, turning his attention to job creation after concentrating on gun-control legislation and immigration reform in recent months.
Obama was kicking off events he has scheduled across the country to draw attention to his efforts to boost economic growth through jobs that benefit the middle class, White House officials said.
"Watching cable TV sometimes, you might get to thinking nothing's going right. But the truth is there's a lot of reasons for us to feel optimistic about where we're headed as a country," he told students and staff at Manor New Technology High School outside Austin.
The first trip on his jobs tour comes as a poll shows that what Americans want most from politicians in Washington is job creation and action to help the economy grow.
But the president's economic efforts face opposition from congressional Republicans who remain set on cutting federal spending and shrinking the size of government as a path to stronger economic growth.
Republicans have wasted no opportunity to blame Obama for an economy where the unemployment rate remains a relatively high 7.5 percent four years after the end of the deep 2007-2009 recession.
The office of Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry - who was one of the president's greeters on arrival - said in a tweet, "Obama should have focused on jobs and opportunity five years ago."
At the Texas school he visited, Obama praised efforts to expand science and math education and watched students operate robots they had built.
"You look like some serious engineers," he told them.
The president's visit also included stops at Applied Sciences, a maker of semiconductors and other technology, and meetings with business people and ordinary citizens, including a visit to Stubb's Bar-B-Q restaurant.
Obama has suffered some recent policy setbacks. He failed to persuade Congress to accept expanded background checks for gun buyers following the December shootings of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
He also is at an impasse with congressional Republicans over a deficit reduction deal he insists should include higher tax revenues, which Republicans oppose.
While the president appears to be making headway in reforming immigration laws, final legislation is months off.
SPARRING OVER THE ECONOMY
White House officials on Thursday criticized congressional Republicans for reviving plans to use the debt ceiling as leverage to extract spending cuts and tax reductions, as well as for allowing deep spending cuts known as "sequestration" to remain in place.
"The status quo doesn't serve any of the long-term objectives of job growth or competitiveness," White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling told reporters during a conference call.
"Those who are serious about our economic recovery, our economic stability, our economic standing, should not be contemplating putting our economy at risk of default," he said.
A Gallup poll released on Tuesday found 86 percent of those surveyed this month ranked creating jobs as their top priority for action by Congress and Obama, tied at 86 percent with helping the economy grow.
Lower on the priority list were reducing the federal deficit at 69 percent, reforming the tax code at 59 percent, reducing gun violence at 55 percent and reforming immigration at 50 percent.
Obama in his speech on Thursday pointed to signs of economic recovery, such as improved corporate profits, a resurgence in the auto industry and a boom in energy.
A top Republican attacked Obama, however, for failing to generate stronger economic growth with his policies.
"That's the Obama economy," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "I hope the president is traveling to Austin today because he's finally serious about turning that around - about changing course and implementing policies that might actually work to get the economy moving again."
McConnell singled out Obama's signature healthcare legislation as an obstacle to hiring.
The White House announced a competition for locations to house three manufacturing institutes where businesses, government and educational institutions will get funding to develop new technologies.
The president also issued an executive order requiring that newly released government data be made freely available in easily readable formats.
(Writing by Mark Felsenthal, Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)