Obama Urges Incentives For Alternative-Fuel Vehicles

President Obama was in North Carolina Wednesday, dropping in on a factory that makes big-rig trucks. Some of those trucks are powered by natural gas, and Obama took the opportunity to propose new tax incentives for alternative-fuel vehicles.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. A handful of factors will likely influence voting in this fall's presidential election.

MONTAGNE: One is the unemployment rate, which is still high, but improving.

INSKEEP: Another factor is President Obama's approval rating, which has also improved, but is still below 50 percent in most surveys.

MONTAGNE: And then there's the way voters are feeling in a handful of swing states, including the state the president visited yesterday.

INSKEEP: He stopped at a North Carolina factory that makes big-rig trucks. Some are powered by natural gas. That provided a setting for the president to propose tax incentives for alternative-fuel vehicles.

MONTAGNE: It also allowed the president to make a broader argument on energy, as gas prices rise.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: North Carolina is a state Mr. Obama won narrowly four years ago - the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to do so. He'd like to keep North Carolina in the Democratic column this year. So on his 13th presidential visit to the state, Mr. Obama left nothing to chance.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I decided to wear a tie that could be a Tarheel.

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OBAMA: But it's got a little Duke color in there, too.

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HORSLEY: The president's energy platform follows a similar formula, with a little something for everyone. He challenged Republicans, who argue the U.S. could lower gasoline prices by simply opening more territory to oil drilling. Domestic oil production is already at an eight-year high, but gasoline prices still spike whenever there's heightened demand from China or tension in the Middle East.

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OBAMA: As much as we're doing to increase oil production, we're not going to be able to just drill our way out of the problem of high gas prices. Anybody who tells you otherwise either doesn't know what they're talking about, or they aren't telling you the truth.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama has invested heavily in alternative forms of energy, while pushing carmakers to increase fuel efficiency. The Freightliner factory he visited yesterday is part of an Energy Department program working to double the mileage for big rig trucks.

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OBAMA: What we need is a serious, sustained, all-of-the-above strategy for American-made energy, American-made efficiency, American innovation, American fuel-efficient trucks, American fuel-efficient cars.

We may not get there in one term.

HORSLEY: Someone in the crowd shouted, four more years. And many of the workers in the audience applauded.

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HORSLEY: Republicans are skeptical of government efforts to promote alternative energy. They note just last week, General Motors temporarily halted production of its electric car, the Chevy Volt. Workers will be laid off for five weeks because of slow sales.

Freightliner's natural gas trucks are selling, though. And after laying off more than 2,000 workers during the worst of the recession, the North Carolina company is hiring again. That's good news in a state where the unemployment rate is one of the nation's highest.

Brandon Quinn was happy to be hired on just a couple of months ago.

BRANDON QUINN: I had a really good job at a company over in Charlotte, and they went under. And got a second one. It went under, as well. And then I found this. So it's real good to see what's going on here with what the union's done and everything. I feel like I've got a little job security.

HORSLEY: Some of the workers at the plant were wearing UAW T-shirts. The autoworkers' union is expected to play an active role in Mr. Obama's re-election campaign.

Campaign manager Jim Messina says with the Republican primary still muddled after this week's Super Tuesday's contests, his team is getting a head start in North Carolina and other battleground states.

JIM MESSINA: The longer the Republican primary goes, you know, the longer we have to continue to build. While they are moving to the right, we are on the ground organizing.

HORSLEY: Messina says a voter registration drive over the weekend signed up more than 3,000 new voters in North Carolina. Crowds of well-wishers and the merely curious turned out to watch yesterday as the president's motorcade drove from the airport to the truck plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: Even the folks who don't vote for me, they're nice to me. They usually wave five fingers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: That suggests Mr. Obama may be back in the closely-divided state, even before Democrats hold their nominating convention in Charlotte this summer.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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