Obama focuses on economy in NC State speech, vows 'year of action' on jobs

jfrank@newsobserver.com, cowens@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2014 

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— Frustrated by Washington gridlock, President Barack Obama on Wednesday promised a “year of action” designed to speed job creation by using his executive powers.

“The challenge of making sure everyone who works hard can get ahead in today’s economy is so important that we can’t wait for Congress to solve it,” Obama told 2,000 people in a speech at N.C. State University. “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, led by NCSU, that will develop the next generation of energy-efficient electronic chips and devices. The effort – and other technology hubs like it expected to be announced soon – helps fulfill a pledge Obama made in his State of the Union address a year ago to develop high-tech jobs.

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 into the middle class.”

Obama also emphasized another program designed to help job seekers: an extension of long-term federal unemployment benefits – an effort that recently stalled in the U.S. Senate. He directed the point at North Carolina in particular.

“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. … People need support, a little help, so they can look after their families while they are looking for a new job.”

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who sat in the front row at the speech, remains undecided about whether he would accept the federal extension if approved by Congress. He signed legislation a year ago to curtail the state’s unemployment benefits program, a move that led to North Carolina jobless workers losing the long-term federal benefits in July.

But manufacturing puts McCrory and Obama on the same page. McCrory is putting an emphasis on recruiting manufacturing jobs to North Carolina, saying before the president’s speech that the sector will lead “the revival of our economy.”

“It’s a great marriage,” the governor said of the initiative announced at NSCU. “We hope it creates jobs in North Carolina. … 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.”

N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, who also attended the speech, said the manufacturing sector 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. She acknowledged that some are fearful about the manufacturing downturn that crippled the state 20 years ago, adding “this is really a new type of (manufacturing) industry coming back.”

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.

‘Back in the game’

Wayne Branch, the owner of a printing business in Raleigh, said the institute is a “good move.”

“I think it’s going to be very beneficial to the small business community in North Carolina,” he said at the event. “It’s going to give us opportunities to get back in the game.”

For the students in the crowd, it resonated in a different way. “I was already big into energy … and with the technology thing he’s starting here, I might be able to stay local and have a job,” said David Scanlan, a freshman at N.C. State who is studying chemical engineering.

Obama used the speech as a preview of his State of the Union address later this month and to highlight the country’s improving economy during his tenure. He cautioned that “we are not going to turn things around overnight” but said the economy is growing strong. “This can be a breakthrough year for America,” Obama said. “The pieces are all there for bringing back more of the jobs we’ve lost over the past decade.”

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Dunn Republican who didn’t attend the speech, said Obama doesn’t deserve credit for North Carolina’s improving economy, saying that belongs to McCrory and GOP legislative leaders.

“I find it ironic that he would come to North Carolina when things are on the upswing … and position himself to take some credit for it when the work is being done by the state itself,” she said by telephone from Washington.

Hagan’s absence noted

N.C. Republican officials saw Obama’s visit through a political lens. State Party Chairman Claude Pope said the primary mission of the president’s trip was to bolster Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign for Senate re-election and took note that she didn’t attend. Hagan has said she needed to remain in Washington ahead of floor votes Wednesday.

Noting her absence, the president singled Hagan out. “I want to thank her publicly for the great work she’s doing,” he said.

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 5 percent unsure.

The numbers are driven by dissatisfaction with the federal health care law, which musters 38 percent approval in North Carolina compared with 48 percent who are opposed. Obama mentioned the law, saying it is helping to slow surging health care costs.

State Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat who attended the speech, said the president’s numbers will rebound as the federal health care law rollout 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.”

CORRECTION: David Scanlan's name was previously misspelled. It was corrected at 6 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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