COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – President Barack Obama is marking what he says is a milestone in the country’s road to economic recovery: the 10,000th road building project paid for by federal stimulus dollars.

Echoing his often effusive vice president, Obama called the project in Columbus, Ohio, a “big deal.”

The president said such projects haven’t just improved communities, but have put thousands of construction workers back to work and spurred activity at other businesses as a result.

Obama’s brief visit to the politically important state is part of a new effort by the administration to remind the public that the $862 billion economic stimulus bill is still churning out jobs in a nation dogged by high unemployment.

Rather than delegating the symbolic occasion to someone, Obama displayed a consistent, public focus on the matter people care about most. The economy remains the top worry of Americans this election year, people are glum about the country’s direction, and unemployment hovers close to double digits.

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The oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is consuming Obama’s time. He calls it his singular focus, even as he has described economic recovery as his top task, too.

Obama’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said the personal attention to the stimulus milestone is important.

“The economy is still lousy,” LaHood said Thursday. “I mean, we have unemployment around — a little over 9 percent. And all of us believe that the way to get people back to work is to continue our progress on the recovery act. The idea that we are celebrating the 10,000 project is great news.”

The president has made a practice of quick trips out of Washington to explain to local workers that the economy is growing again and that companies are hiring workers instead of shedding them in mass numbers, as they were when he took office.

A growing body of independent economic analysis suggests the $862 billion stimulus law has boosted jobs and kept people off the unemployment line.

Exactly how many jobs is a matter of dispute. Much of the money went to programs — tax breaks, Medicaid and unemployment insurance are among them — that don’t lend themselves to easy head counts.

Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday that the federal effort deserves credit for protecting or creating about 2.5 million jobs so far and is on track to save or form 3.5 million jobs by the end of this year as promised. Independent economists have offered a range of estimates.

Republican critics say the White House has not kept its promises, and they point to a White House prediction that the jobless rate would not top 8 percent if the stimulus bill passed. It is now at 9.7 percent.

In Ohio, the economy has been sluggish, with automakers and suppliers closing factories. Unemployment hit 11 percent in March, the state’s highest rate since September 1983. New figures Friday showed the rate dipping to 10.7 percent in May.

The state is also politically significant, often in the center of national elections. Obama won Ohio in 2008 with 51 percent of the vote.

Less than half of Americans, 45 percent, approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, a new Associated Press-GfK poll finds.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.