Striking a decidedly populist tone, President Barack Obama stood in a resurrected factory Wednesday, imploring lawmakers to work as hard as American blue-collar workers as he pitched his plan to jump-start manufacturing and expand opportunities for the middle class.
Hours after delivering his first State of the Union address of his second term, Obama issued a new challenge to a nation still picking itself up from an economic slump: "If you work full time, you shouldn't be in poverty."
"There's no magic bullet here, it's just some common-sense stuff. People still have to work hard," Obama said at an auto parts plant in Asheville. He argued that just a few changes — like increasing the minimum wage, investing in research and incentivizing companies to do business in the U.S. — could go a long way toward a resurgence in American manufacturing.
With sleeves rolled up on his white dress shirt, Obama gazed up at giant, high-tech milling machines, each the size of a small room — symbols of a dispirited American manufacturing sector that Obama insisted can thrive once again.
Joining him for the tour were workers from Linamar Corp, a Canadian-based company that produces heavy-duty engine and driveline components. The company moved in to a defunct Volvo plant and has hired 160 workers at the Asheville plant, with plans to hire 40 more by the end of the year, Obama said.
Jason Furman of the National Economic Council told reporters aboard Air Force One that the company's expansion was "emblematic of the trend of insourcing we're seeing in the United States."
Manufacturing and jobs were a key focus for Obama in his Tuesday night speech, where he worked to tie issues like immigration and climate change to economic growth by arguing the right investments will lay the groundwork for future prosperity. On Wednesday, he sought to rally support for some of his newest proposals, including an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9 and expanded access to preschool.
"It's not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing," Obama said of his initiatives. "Our job as Americans is to restore that basic bargain that says if you work hard, if you meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead."
His last election behind him, Obama now hopes that the prospects for enacting his sweeping second-term agenda could be boosted if he can lock in support from the same centrist voters whose backing he eagerly sought during the re-election campaign. But with most lawmakers hailing from safe districts, even a wave of popular support might not be enough for Obama to win over many congressional Republicans.
Wednesday's trip to North Carolina brought Obama back to a competitive state where he campaigned heavily, but lost. The visit had all the trapping of a campaign-style rally — barricades, platforms and professional lights, and patriotic music drowning out the cheers of a few hundred people who gathered at the factory to hear him speak.
On Thursday, Obama will seek support for his proposals in Georgia, a conservative-leaning state, before making his case on more familiar terrain Friday with a visit to Chicago — his hometown.
Republicans have already made clear that the president's renewed emphasis on jobs and the economy may not win over their support.
"When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Wednesday morning. "At a time when the American people are still asking the question, 'Where are the jobs?' Why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?"
Obama is asking Congress for $1 billion to create a network of "manufacturing innovation institutes" — partnerships among the private sector, the federal government and colleges. He's also advocating for an end to tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas, tougher enforcement of trade laws and new steps to open markets in Europe and Asia.
Obama's aides sees improvements in manufacturing as a bright spot in the U.S. economy and an opportunity to showcase his economic efforts in light of Republican complaints that he has allowed other issues to interfere with the focus on countering unemployment. The White House says manufacturing added 500,000 jobs the last three years after more than 10 years of decline.
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