President Obama swooped into the booming Austin area on Thursday to showcase manufacturing growth and technology innovation as he began a series of visits across the country designed to pressure Congress to pass his economic agenda.
Making stops in and around the Texas capital, Obama called anew on lawmakers to act on ideas he laid out in February’s State of the Union address to expand the middle class by investing in new jobs and job training. The divided Congress has made it difficult for the president to move forward with his employment agenda. In Texas, he announced two modest executive actions aimed at boosting the manufacturing economy.
“I’m an optimistic guy, so I’m just going to keep on talking to members of Congress,” he said at Manor New Technology High School. “Every once in a while, I’m going to need your help to lean on your elected representatives and say, ‘Hey, let’s do something about this.’ . . . But where I can, I’m just going to go ahead and take action on my own.”
The trip to Texas, which has weathered the recession far better than any other big state, was the first stop on Obama’s “Middle Class Jobs & Opportunity Tour,” which over the next few weeks will take him to communities that he will spotlight as economic success stories. His efforts were lifted by last week’s jobs report showing that the unemployment rate had fallen to 7.5 percent, a four-year low, after employers added 165,000 positions in April.
“Thanks to the grit and the determination of the American people, we’ve cleared away the rubble of the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes,” Obama said. “So we’re poised for progress all across America.” The president ticked through several positive economic indicators, including the healing housing market and falling deficits. But he repeatedly acknowledged, “That’s not good enough.”
With his momentum stalled on Capitol Hill, his travel seems designed to help jump-start his second-term agenda. There are few signs that Congress will pass his economic proposals; Republican leaders in both chambers ridiculed the jobs tour as a publicity stunt.
Obama’s visit to Manor New Tech had the feel of a campaign rally, with Top 40 pop music pulsating through the gymnasium for more than an hour as about 400 students and other guests eagerly awaited his arrival. “Howdy, Manor!” Obama said as he took the stage.
The school, about 13 miles northeast of downtown Austin, was built to teach students real-world tech skills after a number of multinational tech companies, including Samsung, established large manufacturing plants in the area.
“I’ve always believed that the best ideas usually don’t start in Washington — they trickle up to Washington — so I’ve come to listen and learn and highlight some of the good work that’s been done,” Obama said.
The president began competitions for three new “Manufacturing Innovation Institutes” modeled after a pilot program in Youngstown, Ohio. The departments of Defense, Energy and Commerce, the National Science Foundation and NASA are putting a combined $200 million behind the initiative, and Obama called on Congress to make a onetime investment of $1 billion to help create 15 institutes nationwide.
The institutes are partnerships among the government, businesses and universities and community colleges to invest in the development and growth of technologies that help U.S.-based manufacturers.
Obama also issued an executive order designed to make previously inaccessible federal data easily available to entrepreneurs, researchers and others trying to develop products and services. The order will require that “newly released government data be made freely available in open, machine-readable formats, while appropriately safeguarding privacy, confidentiality and security,” according to a White House statement.
Obama’s advisers acknowledged that the two actions alone are not enough to spur an economic revival — for that, they said, “bold congressional action” is needed — but that they will make a difference.
Back in Washington, Republicans mocked Obama’s tour, saying that his agenda would stunt job growth and that they would play no part in making his proposals law. “The president doesn’t seem to understand that it’s his policies that are undermining economic growth and job creation,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama’s tour is merely an attempt to dupe Americans into thinking he is focused on growing the economy. “The idea, I presume, is to show folks that the White House has once again ‘pivoted’ to jobs,” McConnell told reporters Thursday. “And if you’re someone who’s all about the visual, then of course putting on a pair of goggles or showing up at a factory is a great way to at least look like you’re doing something about job creation.”
There was a political irony to Obama’s decision to play up the bustling economy in Texas, where the unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in April, well below the national average.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination to challenge Obama last year, greeted the president as he stepped off Air Force One at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The president clasped Perry on the shoulder; they exchanged pleasantries.
But before Obama even touched down in Austin, Perry already had claimed credit for the “Texas success story” that the president came here to praise. The governor said his policies of low taxes and lax regulations allowed Texas employers to create more than half a million jobs over the past five years while the nation as a whole lost 2.5 million positions.
“In fact, the very school he will visit today, Manor New Technology High School, was created as a result of a collaborative effort with Manor ISD, Samsung and my office, as part of a multibillion-dollar capital investment project by Samsung for a semiconductor facility. I was proud to cut the ribbon on opening day,” Perry wrote in an editorial published in The Austin American-Statesman.
Obama’s stop at Manor New Tech High School was his first of four events Thursday. He planned to meet with local middle-class residents and tech entrepreneurs. He also was scheduled to tour and give a speech at Applied Materials, a growing tech company in Austin.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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