Obama Ramps Up Economic Message

The day after his State of the Union address, President Obama headed to Wisconsin for a White House on Main Street event. It's a state that traditionally favors Democrats. Obama won it in 2008, but Republicans dominated in the last election.

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President Obama is urging the nation to invest in job creation. The day after his State of the Union speech, he took that message to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The president spoke of spending to invest in industry on the same day the federal budget deficit was projected to hit a new record.

NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea was with the president.

DON GONYEA: The president visited this small city on the shores Lake Michigan to demonstrate how investment in a green economy creates jobs. He visited a plant that makes wind turbines and he delivered a speech on the shop floor of Orion Energy Systems, a solar power and energy-efficient lighting company.

Mr. Obama took some ribbing about the way the Green Bay Packers knocked off his Chicago Bears on their way to the Super Bowl. But he rolled with it, using the words of the legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi as a transition to his own topic of the day.

President BARACK OBAMA: He said there is no room for second place. There's only one place in my game, and that's first place.

GONYEA: The president then added...

President OBAMA: That's the kind of determination to win that America needs to show right now. That's what we need to show. We need to win the future.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Orion Energy moved to Manitowoc to start a new manufacturing operation in 2004. Since then it's grown to 250 employees and says it hopes to add 50 more this year. The company has gotten clean energy tax breaks and economic stimulus money. The president says it's a way for the government to help entrepreneurs.

President OBAMA: A lot of times Wall Street doesn't necessarily want to take a chance on a good idea until they've seen it proven. Sometimes the research that's required, nobody wants to pay for it. And that's where we have to step in.

GONYEA: Politically, this is an important place for the president. He carried Wisconsin easily back in 2008. But in this past November's elections, the Republicans swept all the big races. The new governor is Scott Walker. He's been a strong critic of the president's economic policies. But yesterday, at the event at Orion, the governor was diplomatic when asked to react to Mr. Obama's message.

Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): I think at a time when the federal government has a $1.5 trillion budget deficit, obviously all of us, Republican and Democrat alike, have to look very closely at how we're going to get out of that. I look at what the president said and what he said again today, and I hope his actions match his words, because if they do, we can find plenty of ways to work with this administration.

GONYEA: Just a few miles up the road in downtown Manitowoc, diners sit at the counter at Warren's Restaurant, where the president's visit even trumped talk of football.

Mr. JOHN TOBIN (Business Owner): It's a great thing for Manitowoc. I mean, to have the president of the United States, sitting president come to your town for the first time in history is probably pretty big for the city. Can't hurt.

GONYEA: That's 41-year-old John Tobin. He owns a sales/marketing business. He says he's an independent voter who supported Mr. Obama two years ago.

Mr. TOBIN: I did, but I wouldn't vote for him again.

GONYEA: Why?

Mr. TOBIN: I don't agree with the policies he's instituted in the first two years he's been in office.

GONYEA: Among other things, Tobin is unhappy with the new healthcare law. But seated just two stools away is 56-year-old Mike Pierce, who doesn't work because of a disability. He too is an independent. He says he did not vote for Mr. Obama. In fact, he didn't vote at all because he didn't like his choices. He says he watched the State of the Union Address, though, and was encouraged. But still...

Mr. MIKE PIERCE: I like a lot of the things that he's saying. I just hope it's just not all hot air.

GONYEA: Pierce says he likes the president's call to invest to create future jobs, but he'd like to see more jobs right now. Also having breakfast is Lianna Leonowicz.

Ms. LIANNA LEONOWICZ (Crossing Guard): I'm a crossing guard lady for the city of Manitowoc.

GONYEA: She says her husband is laid off. She too says she's an independent voter. She says she did not vote for the president, but that he has won her over.

Ms. LEONOWICZ: I am a supporter.

GONYEA: Why?

Ms. LEONOWICZ: I like a few of his ideas. He's for the people. He's coming to Manitowoc. You know, he didn't have to do this, but he's a people person.

GONYEA: Three independent voters in one Wisconsin diner do not constitute a scientific poll. But reaching them and swing voters like them is obviously a big part of what trips like this are all about - and a big part of what that speech the other night was all about too.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

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