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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama took his ideas from the State of the Union on the road today. With stops in Iowa and Arizona, he is underscoring his message that government should do more to encourage manufacturing jobs. The president's three-day trip also includes stops in Colorado, Nevada and Michigan. Those are all states likely to be important in the November election. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the president's economic and political agenda.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Manufacturing is one of the central pillars in Mr. Obama's blueprint for a healthy U.S. economy. So he kicked off his road trip at a factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that's home to a company called Conveyor Engineering.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They specialize in making augers, those giant screws, and they're used to mix and move everything from cement to chocolate. They don't use the same ones for...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Just in case you were wondering.

HORSLEY: Conveyor's not a particularly big company - just 65 workers - but it's hoping to double in size over the next several years. Manufacturing in general has been a relative bright spot in the U.S. economy. The auto industry, in particular, has rebounded. With the help of the government's rescue of General Motors and Chrysler, American automakers and suppliers have added nearly 160,000 jobs over the last two years.

OBAMA: And I want what's happening in Detroit to happen in other industries. I want it to happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh, and I want it to happen right here in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama spoke fondly of the Iowa caucuses that launched his national political career four years ago. But it's not just nostalgia that brought him to Cedar Rapids. Iowa, like all the states he's visiting this week, are important to the president's re-election chances. And while perhaps better known for corn and soybeans, Iowa is also home to a significant number of factories, says Dave Swenson of Iowa State University.

DAVE SWENSON: The eastern part of the state along the Mississippi River is an area that is well-known historically for its farm machinery, construction machinery, and a broad array of durable goods manufacturing.

HORSLEY: Iowa's experience helps illustrate why the administration wants to promote manufacturing. Factory jobs tend to pay higher wages, and create bigger ripple effects in the surrounding economy. Factories account for just 11 percent of the jobs in Iowa but 17 percent of the state's payroll.

Swenson says in order to command those high wages, today's factory workers need specialized skills.

SWENSON: It may have been 25, 30 years ago that you didn't even need to go to high school to get a good manufacturing job, and to have a good life. Those days are rapidly going away. You need to be able to operate computer equipment. You need to be able to operate computer-driven machine tools. Then you're going to need to have quantitative problem-solving skills.

HORSLEY: Skilled workers and advanced equipment are helping to make U.S. factories more productive than ever, and more cost-competitive with rivals overseas. Mr. Obama wants the federal government to encourage that trend.

OBAMA: We got to help these companies succeed. And it starts with changing our tax code.

HORSLEY: The president's upcoming budget will propose a series of tax breaks to reward companies for locating factory jobs in the U.S. while eliminating tax breaks for companies that move jobs offshore. It's not at all clear Congress will go along with those changes. But by making the case, Mr. Obama is also trying to make a larger argument about the role of government: to show that his controversial rescue of the auto industry has paid off, and that prosperity is greatest when it's most widely shared.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: This country only exists because generations of Americans worked together and looked out for each other and believed that, you know, we're stronger when we rise together.

HORSLEY: That's a pillar not only of the president's economic blueprint, but also of his re-election campaign.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, traveling with the president.

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