President Barack Obama, eager to spur growth and hiring, took his daughters on an early Christmas shopping trip on Saturday in Washington as the U.S. retail sector got its vital holiday season underway.

Promoting Small Business Saturday, the second annual event to help Main Street merchants in a tough U.S. economy, Obama visited a local bookstore with Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, in the diverse, upscale Du Pont Circle area of downtown Washington.

This is Small Business Saturday so we're out here supporting small businesses, said Obama, standing next to Malia who was hugging an armful of books to her chest.

To help merchants at the start of the most important shopping season of the year, Obama signed a message of support on Wednesday that noted small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the cornerstones of our nation's promise.

On Saturday, when five-year-old Alexander Lee Mussehl stepped up to the president to say hello, the president told him he was getting an early start on Christmas shopping.

Alexander's grandmother Susan Lee, who brought him to the well-known Kramer's bookstore, got to shake Obama's hand.

I wish I would've said something wonderful, told him to chin up, that he's doing a wonderful job, she told reporters. It appears from the polls that there aren't many of us who think so. I wish I could have pulled myself together and told him.

Obama's approval ratings have been dented by unemployment stuck at 9 percent, and his hopes for re-election next year hinge on getting more people back to work and lifting the country's fragile recovery.

The Obamas bought eight books, including Diary of a Wimpy Kid Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney; Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid; The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, and the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.