WINSTON-SALEM — President Barack Obama downplayed politics Monday, emphasizing the need for Republicans and Democrats to work together and tested out talking points for his re-election campaign.
"I believe right now there are bigger issues at stake for our country than politics," Obama told a small gathering at Forsyth Technical Community College. "These issues call on us to respond not as partisans but as Americans."
Obama warned of a new "Sputnik moment," and said the United States is in danger of being left behind in the sciences and technology just as the Russians had bypassed America in the space race in the 1950s. He urged Democrats and Republicans to put aside their partisan wrangling and focus on preparing the country for foreign economic competition from such countries as China, Korea and India.
This was Obama's first visit to North Carolina since the Democrats took a drubbing in the midterm elections. And it's an indication that he plans to mount another major campaign effort in North Carolina in 2012. Obama was the first Democrat to carry the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
"He could have gone to a lot of places to make his point," Winston-Salem Alderman Dan Besse said.
But Obama also tried to give the event a nonpolitical flavor, with Republican Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem flying down with him on board Air Force One, along with Democratic Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh. Among those who greeted the president were Democratic Gov Bev. Perdue, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro and Democratic Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte.
Obama chose Forsyth Tech to unveil a theme aides say he will emphasize in 2011: The United States must take steps to regain its economic edge in the world market.
Even in difficult budget times, Obama said, the country needs to invest in education and innovation.
He noted that when Forsyth Tech opened 50 years ago, it was an industrial center, focusing on machine shops and auto mechanics, and the state's economy was based largely on tobacco and textiles. But today there is fierce international competition, with the Internet allowing companies to set up anywhere.
"At this moment, the most important competition we face is not between Democrats and Republicans," Obama said. "It's between America and our economic competitors all around the world.
"The hard truth is this: In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind."
In a generation, Obama said, the United States has gone from first to ninth place in the proportion of young people with college degrees. The U.S. is ranked 18th among the 24 industrialized nations in college degrees. The U.S. is 27th in the proportion of people holding science and engineering degrees.
China has built more high-speed rail in the last year, he said, than the United States has built in the last 30 years.
He compared this moment with 1957, when the Soviet's launched Sputnik into space, prompting the United States to put a new emphasis on science and math.
"Fifty years later, our nation's Sputnik moment is back," Obama said.
Even with the national debt crisis, Obama said, the U.S. cannot afford to cut back on education and innovation.
Burr later said that the president had offered some good ideas for investments.
"A lot of them are things that Republicans have embraced and endorsed for some while," Burr said.
Obama was invited by Forsyth Tech, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Obama noted that Forsyth Tech offers cutting-edge programs involving biotechnology, mechanical engineering technology and nanotechnology.
The president said he was told that federal programs, such as the stimulus package and Pell grants for students, were important for Forsyth.
Before his speech, Obama toured two classrooms with Perdue, meeting with students and teachers.
Brandy Baker said that before she enrolled here, she was working in fast food. She told the president she didn't really like it. "I really enjoyed science and math a lot," she said.
Kevin Rich told the president he worked in textiles and was attending Forsyth to gain a more marketable skill. Rich told the president he wanted something with more promise.
"I'm very inspired by what you guys are doing," Obama said. "This is cutting-edge stuff."
Perdue said North Carolina had created 50,000 public and private jobs in the past year. She credited federal stimulus money with helping make that happen.
"The recovery dollars helped keep us from falling off a cliff," the governor said.
Rob.Christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532