In his first trip to Charlotte since the eve of his election, President Barack Obama turned a speech on the economy Friday into a wide-ranging defense of his policies on stimulus spending, health care and offshore oil drilling.
Obama's whirlwind visit, which coincided with the release of a positive jobs report, also gave Charlotte business leaders a chance to buttonhole him, applauding his stand on energy and asking him to do more for an area where unemployment still hovers near 13 percent.
The president hosted a town-hall-style meeting at Celgard, a high-tech firm near Carowinds that makes battery components. The company plans to add about 300 jobs, thanks in part to a $49 million federal stimulus grant.
Obama toured the plant, walking past rolls of plastic resin and listening to workers explain the complicated production process. Later, in a corner of a warehouse-turned-TV studio, he touted a new report that showed the nation added 162,000 jobs in March, the most since the recession began more than two years ago. National unemployment remained at 9.7 percent.
"We are beginning to turn the corner," Obama told the audience of about 300. "Now, this has been a harrowing time for our country. And it's easy to grow cynical and wonder if America's best days are behind us, especially after such a terrible crisis.
"But what we can see here, at this plant, is that the worst of the storm is over; that brighter days are still ahead."
While Obama defended his $787 billion recovery program, Republicans blasted it.
"The president, I believe, is familiar with the word 'audacity,'" N.C. GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer said. "It takes a tremendous amount of audacity from him to come to North Carolina and talk about job creation."
The state's unemployment rate - 11.2 percent in February - has been in double digits since March 2009. Defending health care
Obama saw critics firsthand as his motorcade turned onto Carowinds Boulevard at South Tryon Street. At least 300 protesters, many from local tea party groups, shouted and waved signs like "No to Socialism" and "Obamacare is bad medicine."
He seemed to address such critics when he answered a question from a Celgard employee.
"Is it a wise decision," she asked, "to add more taxes to us with the health care? Because ... we are overtaxed as it is."
"Well, let's talk about that," Obama replied, "because this is an area where there's been just a whole lot of misinformation."
He described the health care law as a "moral imperative" that would insure millions of people who have no health insurance and add protections for those who do. He cited a report by the Congressional Budget Office saying the legislation would result in a net reduction of $143 billion in the federal deficit over the next decade.
"The costs of health care - setting aside anything we did in reform, I mean, if we just allowed the current trajectory to go on - is out of control," Obama said.
Obama said the new law would be paid for through a combination of new taxes on wealthy Americans as well as by cuts in subsidies to insurers in the Medicare Advantage program, which offers extra features. Of North Carolina's 1.4 million Medicare beneficiaries, 241,000 are in such plans.
"It's just a subsidy to them that doesn't make anybody healthier," Obama said. "So what we're saying is, 'Well, let's eliminate the subsidy.'"
Sitting a few seats away with other Charlotte-area Democrats was U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, who voted against the health legislation because of his opposition to Medicare cuts. Aides said Kissell was not available for comment. Oil drilling rationale
Another questioner said Obama's decision this week to open the coast to offshore drilling could hobble the search for alternate energy. Obama said he wants that search to continue.
"For the next 10 years, next 20 years, we're still going to be using oil; we're still going to be using coal, we're still going to be using natural gas," Obama said. "[We] have to make sure that we've got enough supply ... so that by the time we get to the clean energy sector, we haven't had to sacrifice economic growth along the way."
He also mentioned his support for nuclear power. In February, the energy department gave a loan guarantee to a Georgia power company for the first new nuclear power plant in the U.S. in 30 years.
Later, as the president prepared to board Air Force One, a Duke Energy executive thanked him for that.
"[I] told him we appreciate how he's moving in the right direction with nuclear power," said Brett Carter, president of Duke Energy North Carolina.
Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan said he told the president "there is a growing optimism about the economy in our business community."
"But the No. 1 issue for our members," he said, "remains access to capital and we need [your] help fixing that."
Obama replied that he's working with banks to make more available, Morgan said.
Also greeting Obama was Duke CEO and President Jim Rogers. He saluted the president's stand on nuclear power and offshore drilling.
Rogers asked the president if they could pose for a picture for his granddaughter holding a paper cutout of the children's book character Flat Stanley. Obama laughed.
"I know Flat Stanley," the president replied. "We can do this.'"
Staff writers Eric Frazier and Bruce Henderson contributed.