Raleigh, North Carolina – President Barack Obama is embracing a do-it-yourself approach to reviving the nation’s economy, saying Wednesday at North Carolina State University that he will bypass Congress where he can to help accelerate the recovery.
“This has to be a year of action,” Obama told a crowd of hundreds at the tennis center on the Raleigh campus. “Where I can act, on my own without Congress, I’m going to do so. And today I’m here to act.”
Obama announced a $140 million consortium of companies and universities at NCSU that will develop the next generation of energy-efficient electronic chips and devices. The effort – and other technology hubs like it – fulfill a pledge in his State of the Union address a year ago to develop high-tech jobs.
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The Next Generation Power Electronics Institute will be headquartered on NCSU’s Centennial Campus. Over the next five years, the U.S. Department of Energy will provide $70 million to the institute, to be matched by at least $70 million in nonfederal money by the businesses and universities and the state of North Carolina.
The institute will serve as a “hub to lift up our communities,” Obama said. “The hub to spark the technology and research that will create the new industries, the good jobs required for folks to punch their tickets in the middle class, and that’s what America’s all about.”
In making the announcement, Obama also urged Congress to pass an extension of the long-term federal unemployment benefits – an effort stalled in the U.S. Senate. And he used North Carolina to make the point.
“Let me just make an aside here,” Obama said. “North Carolina still has a higher than average unemployment rate so this is important to this state. Folks aren’t looking for a handout. They are not looking for special treatment. … People need support – a little help so they can look after their families while they are looking for a new job.”
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who met Obama at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and attended the speech, remains uncertain as to whether he would accept the extension if approved by Congress. Republican legislative leaders also are split.
But with the focus on manufacturing, Obama is echoing the McCrory administration’s economic emphasis. In an interview at the event, McCrory said the president’s visit “is nothing about politics for me; this is about jobs.”
McCrory said the state is making announcements about new manufacturing jobs nearly every week. “It’s a great marriage,” the governor said of the initiative announced at NSCU. “We hope it creates jobs in North Carolina.”
“Manufacturing is going to be the revival of our economy,” McCrory continued. “We’ve realized that you cannot live off the service industry or government jobs. You have to have an industry that makes things and builds things.
North Carolina Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, who sat in the front row for the president’s address, said the manufacturing sector is a vital part of the state’s rebounding economy as it accounts for 20 percent of North Carolina’s gross domestic product.
“Nine percent of our employment is in this sector and it’s growing,” she said. “Folks are fearful … they remember the downturn in manufacturing 20 years ago. … But this is really a new type of (manufacturing) industry coming back again.”
Decker said “an innovation center is a good example of the type of help we need” from the federal government to turn the research at the state’s prestigious universities into commercial products.
In the speech, Obama said the economy is making progress five years after the recession hit, but wants to see more action. “That’s what I mean by saying this could be a breakthrough year for America,” he said. “The pieces are all there.”
The economic message likely hit home with Brenda Williamson, 62, a retired state worker. “I hope he’ll say that we are on the right track, that we have a ways to go but we’ve come a long way,” she said before the speech.
Jamar McKoy, chairman of the Gaston County Democratic Party, who greeted the president on the airport tarmac said he hoped the president would speak with the governor to “change some of his policies.”
Republican Party officials saw Obama’s visit in a political lens. State Party Chairman Claude Pope said the president’s primary mission in his visit is to bolster Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign for Senate re-election.
Republicans also are emphasizing Hagan’s absence, suggesting she is trying to distance herself from the president. Hagan has said she needed to remain in Washington ahead of floor votes Wednesday. She faces a tough re-election battle with her numbers sliding, thanks in part to the federal health care law.
Hours before Obama arrived in Raleigh, a new poll put his approval rating at 40 percent.
Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen said it’s the lowest ever rating for Obama in the Democratic firm’s monthly North Carolina poll. His disapproval rating is 54 percent with another 5 percent unsure.
The numbers are driven by dissatisfaction with the federal health care law, which musters 38 percent approval in North Carolina compared to 48 percent who are opposed.
State Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat who attended the speech, said the president’s numbers will rebound as the federal health care law roll out improves. “Americans need to see results and they are starting to see results” he said.
He also applauded the bipartisan focus on manufacturing. “That’s the way government should work,” he said. “It’s about promoting high-tech investment and jobs in North Carolina.”