ARDEN — President Barack Obama used a bustling engine-parts factory that came back from the dead as the backdrop Wednesday to pitch his plans to boost U.S. manufacturing, part of the second-term agenda he rolled out in his State of the Union address the night before.
"There are things we can do right now to accelerate the resurgence of American manufacturing," Obama told a crowd on the factory floor at Linamar Corp. He called on Congress to approve $1 billion to create a network of 15 manufacturing "innovation institutes" in hard-hit areas, lower the tax rate for manufacturers to 25 percent from 35 percent and provide help for communities hurt by plant closings.
"Im doing what I can just through administrative action, but I need Congress to help," the president said. "I need Congress to do their part. I need Congress to take up these initiatives, because weve come too far and weve worked too hard to turn back now."
Obama used the appearance in Western North Carolina to build popular support for his proposals, many of which Congress has rejected before. He faced immediate blowback from Republicans ranging from House Speaker John Boehner to U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, whose district includes Asheville.
"Once again, President Obama is flying down to North Carolina to push his economic agenda," McHenry said. The last time, he visited Freightliner in Mount Holly. Six months later, they announced over 1,000 layoffs. No matter how many times he says otherwise, President Obamas policies are hurting small and large businesses in North Carolina.
Wednesday's speech was the first stop on a three-day, three-state swing that will take Obama to Georgia to talk about federal help for education and to Chicago to talk about gun control.
Obamas manufacturing pitch was made in a state experiencing one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, as factories have continued to close. North Carolina's unemployment rate was 9.2 percent in December, compared with 7.8 percent nationally. One reason has been the steady loss of manufacturing jobs. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of manufacturing jobs dropped by nearly 400,000.
The president toured the plant, which makes heavy-duty parts in a once-vacant former Volvo auto facility outside Asheville. The Canadian-owned company, which decided in 2011 to open its fourth U.S. manufacturing facility at the site, has hired 160 workers and will be up to 200 by the end of the year, Obama said.
Brothers Ricky and Matthew Mathis of Asheville are among those who got jobs. Ricky, 20, was working in a convenience store for $8.25 an hour. Matthew, 27, was an auto mechanic. Both went to Asheville-Buncombe Tech to get a certificate that led to higher-paying jobs with Linamar.
I went from renting to buying a house, because I have a steady job thats going to be there, Matthew Mathis said before Obamas speech.
Obama said community colleges that can prepare students for specific jobs are one of the keys to rebuilding industry and the nations economy. No job in America should go unfilled because nobody has the skills, he said.
His campaign-style swing and the speech itself drew criticism from Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky argued that Obamas speech Tuesday offered a retread of lip service and liberalism and that the president had failed to offer a way for the warring parties to resolve looming fiscal challenges.
Boehner, R-Ohio, took issue with Obamas call to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.
When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it, Boehner said Wednesday. Why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?
Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell said that was one of his favorite proposals. Asheville has approved a living wage plan that pays city workers at least $9.50 with health benefits, he said.
White House officials didnt estimate how many factory jobs the presidents proposals would create. But Obama argued that the timing is key, saying its becoming more expensive to do business in places such as China.
His proposals include creating more manufacturing-innovation institutes like one the administration started in Youngstown, Ohio, in a former factory thats now a lab developing 3-D printing.
The administration plans to use its own authority to create three more institutes, but its calling on Congress for $1 billion to set up 15 more.
The president also is calling for lowering the overall corporate tax rate to 28 percent and the manufacturing rate to 25 percent, administration officials said. He would pay for it by cutting tax break that corporations receive for locating overseas.