Obama Takes Manufacturing Jobs Message To Iowa

President Obama spoke at a manufacturing plant, where he talked about jobs and the future. Tuesday's speech was much like many he's delivered in recent months — except this one was in Iowa, where the 2012 campaign for president is well underway.

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In Washington, President Obama is holding a news conference later this morning, as the debt and budget showdown continue between the White House and Congress. This comes after a campaign-style appearance in Iowa yesterday, where the president touted the benefits of making investments in the latest in manufacturing.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Every four years, Iowa produces a bumper crop of presidential candidates who stand on hay bales, pet prize-winning hogs, and nod with interest at the rising price of a bushel of corn. President Obama may do all of that before long. But his first visit to Iowa in this summer before the caucuses found Mr. Obama not in a field but a factory. That's no accident. Mr. Obama sees factories like the Alcoa aluminum rolling plant in Bettendorf, Iowa, as a key ingredient in America's economic revival.

President BARACK OBAMA: A big part of our future has to be a robust and growing manufacturing sector. We've got to make things right here in America.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Manufacturing certainly led the way in Iowa. The state's factories added some 2,500 jobs last month alone, and that's helped keep the unemployment rate enviably low at just six percent.

Dave Swenson of Iowa State University says manufacturing's role in the state's economy often goes unappreciated.

Professor DAVID SWENSON (Iowa State University): If you ask people what's the biggest industry in Iowa, they're going to say agriculture. Many people won't even get to manufacturing by the fourth or fifth try.

HORSLEY: But the total manufacturing payroll in Iowa is nearly three times that of farming, partly because factories offer some of the best paying jobs in the state.

Prof. SWENSON: They are the entree into a middle class lifestyle for a lot of Iowans that otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity for that kind of earnings.

HORSLEY: President Obama sees similar potential for manufacturing nationwide.

Walking through the Alcoa plant yesterday with the general manager and the president of the local Steelworkers Union, Mr. Obama was impressed by the 30-ton cranes overhead and the color-coded charts tracking quality and workflow.

President OBAMA: That's what made you guys competitive, having the best workers but also having the best equipment. You had to up your game. And that's what we've got to do as a country as a whole.

HORSLEY: The White House said this visit was simply a chance for the president to make his case for advanced manufacturing. But one couldn't help noticing all the Republican presidential hopefuls who've also been spending time in Iowa.

President OBAMA: I know you've been seeing a lot of politicians around lately. Something tells me that you may see a few more before February is over. But Iowa, you and I, we go a long way back.

HORSLEY: It was at a town hall meeting three years ago that Mr. Obama first met Cynthia Ross-Friedhof. The Bettendorf restaurant owner wowed the candidate with her description of her signature dish, the Magic Mountain: loose meat, French fries, and cheddar cheese sauce piled high on Texas toast. Yesterday, Mr. Obama surprised Friedhof by stopping by Ross's 24-hour restaurant for a sample.

President OBAMA: Now, I'm not sure that I'm going to be able to eat one of these, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: You guys ever had one of these?

Unidentified Man: Oh, yeah.

Unidentified Woman: Wonderful.

HORSLEY: To Friedhof's delight, the president ordered half-a-dozen Mountains for himself and his staff, including two so-called Volcanoes, topped with chili and onions.

Ms. CYNTHIA ROSS-FRIEDHOF (Owner, Ross's Restaurant): I hope he brought his antacids, because he said he's going to need one after he eats a Magic Mountain, he thinks. But I don't think so.

HORSLEY: Friedhof's father started the restaurant in the 1940s, and it's the kind of local landmark visiting politicians often use for a friendly photo op. One regular customer recalled Rudy Giuliani dropping in, and said it's not unusual to go for lunch and wind up shaking hands with a presidential candidate. To see the president himself, she said, that is unusual, but maybe not so much in the hotly contested contest about to begin.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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