Following through on a promise from last year's State of the Union speech to try to help create well-paying U.S. jobs, President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced a new public-private manufacturing hub in North Carolina to develop next-generation power electronics.
Obama's announcement was meant to give manufacturing a boost in a state that has taken hits during the recession. "We're not going to turn things around overnight. A lot of jobs were lost in the textile industry and furniture making," he told 2,000 people gathered in an arena at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.
But he expressed optimism about the prospects for change. "This can be a breakthrough year for America," he said. "The pieces are all there to start bringing back more of the jobs that we've lost over the past decade."
Obama's quick stop in North Carolina comes after the government reported last Friday that employers added just 74,000 jobs in December. The report raised fresh concerns about the pace of the economic recovery.
The unemployment rate also fell three-tenths of a percentage point, from 7 percent to 6.7 percent, its lowest level in more than five years, largely because a wave of job seekers had given up looking for work. That meant the government no longer counted them as unemployed.
The White House says that since the end of the recession, manufacturing has grown at the fastest pace in more than a decade, with more than half a million jobs added in the past four years. The figure includes the addition of about 80,000 jobs in just the past five months. "Manufacturing is a bright spot in this economy," Obama said.
The president used the occasion to push Congress to reinstate long-term unemployment benefits. The program expired late last month and immediately cut off financial aid for more than 1.3 million people who have exhausted their state-paid unemployment benefits. Votes in the Senate Tuesday on a pair of Democratic-drafted proposals to reinstate the program fell short of the tally needed for passage.
"Where I can act on my own, without Congress, I'm going to do so. And today I'm here to act," Obama said to applause.
The new manufacturing institute will focus on developing the next generation of energy-efficient, high-power electronic chips and devices that will be used to help make products such as motors, consumer electronics and other devices that support the power grid. It's being steered by a consortium of 18 businesses and six universities, led by North Carolina State University.
Obama said his administration will announce two other innovation hubs in the coming weeks — one focusing on digital design and the other on lightweight metals. The program is being funded with $200 million in existing federal money.
Before his speech in Raleigh, Obama toured Vacon, a member of the consortium in nearby Durham that manufactures drives to make electric motors more energy-efficient by controlling their speed. "That means, ultimately, energy savings that we can spread across the entire economy," Obama told reporters as he toured the company in shirtsleeves.
While the economy was the reason for the president's trip, the visit wasn't without a dose of political drama.
Kay Hagan, the state's Democratic U.S. senator, did not plan to join Obama, as lawmakers often do when a president visits their turf. Her office said she would not be there because the Senate is in session, an explanation Republicans weren't buying. The GOP hopes unhappiness with Obama's health care law and Hagan's support for it will help topple her in November and help the party take back the Senate.
Hagan's decision has raised questions about whether Obama has become a liability for vulnerable Democrats facing re-election. But Obama praised her at the top of his speech, and she was likely to see him in the evening back at the White House for a private meeting with Senate Democrats.
The Associated Press