COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — As the bronze plaque of hard-throwing slugger Babe Ruth glistened behind him, President Barack Obama on Thursday pitched the United States as a destination spot for travelers, casting tourism as a job-creator that can offer a needed boost to a recovering economy.
Using the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as his backdrop, Obama made a case for attracting more foreign visitors and helping a sector of the economy that has increasingly brought in more money but still faces competition from abroad.
"When it comes to tourism, we have a great product to sell," he said. "Nothing says 'Made in America' better than the Empire State Building or the Hoover Dam."
His visit to the 75-year-old museum, which attracts nearly 300,000 visitors a year, was the first by a sitting president. Obama, an avid ESPN watcher and sports fan, was clearly in his element. He noted, with amusement, that the exhibits included the jacket he wore while throwing out the first pitch at the 2009 All-Star Game. Then, recalling the ridicule he received for wearing "mom jeans" that evening, he added sheepishly, "Michelle retired those jeans quite a while back."
Two years ago, Obama acted to speed the processing of visa for tourists from China and Brazil. On Thursday, he tackled the flip side of the problem: long waits for processing at U.S. airports and other ports of entry once tourists arrive.
Earlier Thursday, Obama signed a presidential memorandum giving his homeland security and commerce secretaries four months to come up with a plan to streamline the entry process for tourists and reduce wait times. He also asked the departments to work with the 15 largest U.S. airports, following steps taken by Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago international airports to cut wait times.
During his museum tour, Obama held Babe Ruth's baseball bat, palmed the ball thrown in 1910 by President William Howard Taft, the first president to make a ceremonial pitch, examined a ball recovered from the rubble of the Twin Towers and marveled at the shoes worn by Shoeless Joe Jackson. "He had small feet," Obama observed.
At a display on the integration of baseball that featured Jackie Robinson and his retired Dodgers' jersey, Obama said: "Got to have everybody on the field." Told Robinson was hit by a pitch seven times in his first months in the major leagues, Obama replied: "Interesting to note."
"Baseball describes our history in so many ways," he said in his speech. "This hall has memories of two world wars that we fought and won. It has memories of color barriers being broken, Jackie Robinson's uniform, the record of his first season as a Dodger."
From the museum, Obama flew to Chicago to headline a pair of fundraisers benefiting a fellow Illinois Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin, and Democratic Senate candidates. At a reception at the sprawling home of Michael and Tanya Polsky, Obama urged guests who paid between $1,000 and $35,000 for tickets to "feel a sense of urgency" about the midterm elections, a historically low-turnout affair.
Obama said the fate of too many important issues depend on the November results. The outcome will determine whether Democrats hold on to the Senate and whether the party bucks historical trends and gains seats in, or even reclaims, the Republican-controlled House.
"It is not good enough simply to sit back and complain," Obama said, speaking from the home's foyer. "Cynicism is not an option."
Before traveling to the baseball museum, Obama met with 20 travel and tourism industry CEOs and senior executives, including Arne Sorenson of Marriott International, Mark Hoplamazian of Hyatt Hotels and Roger Dow of the U.S. Travel Association.
A White House report released Thursday said the number of international visitors has grown from 55 million in 2009 to a record 70 million in 2013, a level of growth that has supported about 175,000 jobs over the past five years. Two years ago, Obama set a goal of welcoming 100 million international visitors a year by the end of 2021.
Still, as the number of travelers worldwide increases sharply, the U.S. share of that market has slipped. Last year, 13 percent of global travelers visited the United States, compared with 17 percent in 2000.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.
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