In The Heartland, Obama Calls For Innovation

President Obama took his new message about American competitiveness on the road Wednesday to the political battleground of Wisconsin. One day after his State of the Union speech, in which he stressed investments in areas like clean energy, the president toured a windmill factory and a firm that makes high-efficiency lighting. He underscored the role he says the government can play in helping to make businesses more competitive.

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President Obama took his message about American competitiveness on the road today. First stop, the political battleground of Wisconsin. On the day after his State of the Union speech, where he stressed investments in areas like clean energy, Mr. Obama toured a windmill factory and a firm that makes high efficiency lighting.

He underscored the role, he says, the government can play in helping to make businesses more competitive in the world economy.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: There's one competition President Obama probably wants to forget about - Sunday's NFC championship game in which the Green Bay Packers defeated his beloved Chicago Bears. Packer fans were quick to remind the president, though, as soon as he arrived in northeastern Wisconsin.

President BARACK OBAMA: I have already gotten three Green Bay jerseys.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: Mr. OBAMA wished the Packers good luck in the Super Bowl. Many turned to the growing economic competition between the U.S. and fast-growing countries like China and India. He quoted legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, saying in this contest, there's no room for second place.

Pres. OBAMA: We've got to up our game. We're going to need to go all in. We're going to need to get serious about winning the future.

HORSLEY: Visiting a renewable power company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Mr. Obama repeated one of his main arguments from last night's speech. He says government has a key role to play in the nation's economy. Maybe not the quarterback, more like an offensive lineman opening strategic holes for entrepreneurs to bolt through.

Pres. OBAMA: This company has also been supported over the years not just by the Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration, but by tax credits and awards we created to give a leg up to renewable energy companies.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. WILLIAM GALSTON (Fellow, Brookings Institution): President Obama believes that government can be a partner in economic growth and job creation.

HORSLEY: William Galston is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to President Clinton. He says past presidents, including Republicans Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower, have supported government investment in education, innovation and infrastructure. Mr. Obama invoked that tradition in his speech last night.

Pres. OBAMA: America's the nation that built the Transcontinental Railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the interstate highway system. The jobs created by these projects didn't just come from laying down track or pavement, they came from businesses that opened near a town's new train station or the new off ramp.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama is no longer talking here about shovel-ready construction projects to provide immediate work. Instead, he's talking about investments where the payoff might be years or decades away. Galston says Mr. Obama can afford that longer perspective now that, in the president's words, he's broken the back of the great recession.

Mr. GALSTON: During the first two years of his administration, Dr. Obama was trying to keep the economic patient from expiring. The tone of the 2011 State of the Union, by contrast, took a much longer view.

HORSLEY: Political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says the big challenge for the president will be how to pay for those new investments at the same time, he's promising a five-year freeze in discretionary spending.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Political Analyst, Claremont McKenna College): The president had a problem. On the one hand he wanted an activist government. On the other hand, he recognizes the fiscal problems facing the taxpayer.

HORSLEY: The president may offer more details on how he'd pay for his programs in next month's budget. Meanwhile, Pitney says, congressional Republicans insist what the economy needs is less government.

Prof. PITNEY: One thing you can say for certainty is that we're not going to balance the budget in the next couple of years. And another thing you can say with certainty is that there's going to be a great deal of argument and disagreement about the appropriate size of government.

HORSLEY: The president's State of the Union signaled even with a more Republican Congress, he's not backing away from that debate.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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