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Obama vows to put economy in overdrive

Marking the halfway point in his four-year term, President Obama declared Friday that his job consists of "putting our economy into overdrive." He also announced a restructured presidential advisory board that will focus on increasing employment and business opportunities abroad.

Jeffrey R. Immelt, the CEO of the General Electric Co., will head the panel.

Obama used his visit to Schenectady, GE's birthplace, to hail the American worker and to emphasize that the council's new leadership and mission reflect an administration's shift from trying to halt the recession to broader efforts to improve the U.S. economy and create jobs.

"America's home to inventors and dreamers and builders and creators," Obama told workers at GE's 23-acre turbine and generator plant. "You guys are a model of what's possible."

Immelt will lead the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which is replacing the Economic Recovery Advisory Board that Obama created two years ago to help guide the administration's response to the recession.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker had been chairman of the recovery board. In a statement, Obama announced that Volcker will step down next month as an administration adviser.

Obama said Immelt "understands what it takes for America to compete in the global economy."

"For America to compete around the world, we need to export more goods around the world," Obama said after touring the turbine plant with Immelt. "That's where the customers are. It's that simple." He said his goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years is "on track," adding: "We're already up 18 percent, and we're just going to keep on going."

"We want an economy that is fueled by what we invent and what we build," Obama said. "We're going to build stuff and invent stuff. Now, nobody understands this better than Jeff Immelt."

In the speech, the president repeatedly highlighted the issue of competitiveness, a major new theme the administration has rolled out over the last several days and one that will be featured prominently in Obama's State of the Union address next week.

He said it was critical that U.S. companies are innovative enough to sell their goods abroad and therefore create jobs at home.

By picking Immelt to lead the new outside economic advisory board, Obama has selected a titan of American commerce who has emphasized the importance for U.S. companies of selling into emerging markets but who also has overseen difficult times in his own company.

Immelt, 54, has served as CEO of GE, one of the world's largest companies, since September 2000. He succeeded Jack Welch, who was widely regarded as a masterful executive and manager. Since then, Immelt has helped deepen GE's footprint in places like India and China.

But the company still has struggled, losing more than half of its value since Immelt took over. Most of that decline came during the financial crisis as GE Capital, the company's finance arm, suffered huge losses on loans and required financial aid from the government.

In a call with investors to discuss GE's fourth-quarter results, Immelt said his commitment to the company would not change with his appointment to the economic advisory board, Bloomberg News reported.

By turning to Immelt, Obama chose one of the most prominent corporate chiefs in the country and a self-described Republican. Immelt's vocal support could prove helpful to Obama as he negotiates with the new Republican majority in the House over deficit reduction, jobs programs, the health care law and regulation.

Immelt also bolsters Obama's business bona fides, following a string of recent appointees who had worked in Corporate America. They include William M. Daley, a former JPMorgan Chase executive who was named White House chief of staff, and Gene Sperling, who formerly worked for Goldman Sachs and was appointed to head Obama's National Economic Council.

Business groups, which rigorously fought Obama's signature domestic achievements last year -- the overhaul of health care and financial regulation -- hailed the selection of Immelt but cautioned that they want the administration to follow up on the appointment with new policies.

"President Obama's appointment of Jeffrey Immelt to head the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness is a promising step toward a renewed focus on creating jobs, boosting economic growth, and enhancing America's global competitiveness," said Thomas Donohue, U.S. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. "The ultimate test will not be the administration's words and intentions, but its actions."

Before being tapped for his new role Friday, Immelt long supported Obama's work on behalf of American companies overseas. He joined Obama in India in November and participated in several events during the state visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Last year, GE, an industrial giant that manufactures jet engines, medical equipment and many other products, agreed to sell the majority of NBC -- perhaps its best-known subsidiary -- to Comcast.

A native of Cincinnati and graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School, he has worked throughout the conglomerate's business since joining the firm in 1982, including its plastics and medical businesses and GE Capital. In 2009, Immelt received more than $5 million in compensation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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