By Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday sought to turn the spotlight from controversies threatening to swamp his agenda back to his top priority - the economy - and announced he will try to cut in half the time it takes to get federal approval for large job-creating projects.
Obama traveled to Baltimore, a short helicopter ride from the White House, to talk about steps he is taking to streamline permits for infrastructure, early childhood education, and positive signs in the economy.
He did not mention the trio of storms that have beset his administration in the past week and that some believe could overrun his second-term agenda.
Speaking in front of heavy equipment at Ellicott Dredges, a company that helped dredge the Panama Canal over 100 years ago, Obama took a swipe at the distractions of Washington politics.
"I know it can seem frustrating sometimes when it seems like Washington's priorities aren't the same as your priorities," Obama said in his upbeat speech.
"Others may get distracted by chasing every fleeting issue that passes by. But the middle class will always be my number-one focus, period," he said.
Obama's Baltimore trip is a good idea and a productive change of scene for him, said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who specialized in damage control for the Clinton White House.
"It gets you out of the bunker," Lehane said.
Meanwhile, Washington was fixated on Friday on a Republican-led House of Representatives hearing where the now-fired head of the Internal Revenue Service was grilled about how agents targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny.
The IRS scandal was one of three that forced Obama on the defensive in the past week.
The White House was also doing damage control on what it said in the wake of last year's attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, and the Justice Department's seizure of phone logs of journalists at the Associated Press as it looked for leaks of classified information.
In his speech, Obama recalled advice he received as a young senator from longtime former Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes.
"I asked him, 'What's your advice?' He says, 'Just keep in mind the people who sent you.' Because here in Washington, sometimes people get distracted," Obama said.
CONTROVERSY NOT FAR AWAY
Obama was warmly received in Baltimore, first visiting an elementary school where he saw 4- and 5-year-olds learning how to spell and describe their favorite zoo animals in a pre-kindergarten class - the type of program he has said should be available to all American children so they get a good start.
Later, he talked about how to get through the rocky times in life at a roundtable with a group of people at the Center for Urban Families, a non-profit that helps people find jobs and training.
He walked through the century-old factory floor of Ellicott Dredges, where men in steel-toed boots were working on a giant corkscrew excavation tool destined for a Bangladesh shipyard.
But even on this friendly tour, political controversy was near at hand.
His tour guide was Peter Bowe, the company's chief executive, who on Thursday told a House of Representatives hearing that his company has been hurt by the protracted federal approval process for the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline from the oil sands fields in Canada.
"For us, it's all about jobs," Bowe said on Thursday, urging speedy approval of TransCanada's pipeline. The company first applied for project approval in 2008.
Obama delayed the project last year, saying it needed further review. A decision is unlikely until late this year or even early 2014.
The pipeline has been championed by Republicans, who blame Obama for the delay, and pilloried by environmental groups who argue Obama's credibility on his vow to address climate change hinges on rejecting the project.
Obama did not mention pipelines in his speech about delays for infrastructure projects.
But he said he had drawn inspiration from someone he met at the plant - Myrna LaBarre, who had worked for the company for 50 years and who described her secret for success.
"She said, 'Be honest, be helpful, accept your mistakes and improve upon them, be good to people, keep a good sense of humor, have the best work ethic possible, and handle the good times and get over the bad,'" Obama said.
"If we keep that in mind, if we just all keep Myrna's advice in mind, keep plugging away, keep fighting, we'll build an even better America than we've got right now," he said.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Jackie Frank and Philip Barbara)