The bronze plaque of hard-throwing slugger Babe Ruth glistening behind him, President Obama on Thursday pitched the United States as a destination spot for travelers, casting tourism as a job-creating industry than 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 more money into the United States 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 to throw 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."
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 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.
Obama acted two years ago to speed the processing of tourist visas for visitors from China and Brazil. On Thursday, Obama tackled the flip side of the problem: long waits for processing at U.S. airports and other ports of entry once tourists arrive.
During his tour of the museum, Obama got to hold Babe Ruth's baseball bat, palm the ball thrown in 1910 by President William Howard Taft, the first president to make a ceremonial pitch, examine a ball recovered from the rubble of the Twin Towers and marvel 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 two months in the major leagues, Obama replied: "Interesting to note."
"Baseball describes our history in so many ways," he said. "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."
Before departing for upstate New York, 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.
"These people spend $4,500 a trip, so it's a monster opportunity ahead of us," Dow, of the Travel Association, said after the White House meeting.