Charlotte Observer
3:52 pm
Wed January 15, 2014

Obama Focuses On Economy In NC State Speech

RALEIGH President Barack Obama is embracing a do-it-yourself approach to reviving the nation’s economy, saying Wednesday at N.C. State University that he wants to see the recovery accelerate.

“This has to be a year of action,” Obama told a crowd of students, Democratic Party officials and invited guests. “Where I can act on my own without Congress I’m going to do so. And today I’m here to act.”

The White House is emphasizing ways the president can use his authority to help boost the economy and bypass the gridlock in Washington. Obama announced one of the first initiatives in front of a crowd of hundreds on the Raleigh campus: a $140 million consortium of companies and universities at NCSU that will develop the next generation of energy-efficient electronic chips and devices.

The Next Generation Power Electronics Institute will be headquartered on NCSU’s Centennial Campus. Over the next five years, the U.S. Department of Energy will provide $70 million to the institute, to be matched by at least $70 million in nonfederal money by the businesses and universities and the state of North Carolina.

The announcement is part of a larger focus on the economy. “We’ve made progress,” Obama said. “That’s what I mean by saying this could be a breakthrough year for America. The pieces are all there.”

The economic message likely hit home with Brenda Williamson, 62, a retired state worker. “I hope he’ll say that we are on the right track, that we have a ways to go but we’ve come a long way,” she said before the speech.

With the focus on manufacturing, Obama is echoing the emphasis from the Republican administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, who greeted the president at the airport and attended the speech.

In an interview at the event, Gov. Pat McCrory said the president’s visit “is nothing about politics for me; this is about jobs.”

McCrory said the state is making announcements about new manufacturing jobs nearly every week. “It’s a great marriage,” the governor said of the initiative announced at NSCU. “We hope it creates jobs in North Carolina.”

“Manufacturing is going to be the revival of our economy,” McCrory continued. “We’ve realized that you cannot live off the service industry or government jobs. You have to have an industry that makes things and builds things.

Commerce Secretary Decker, who sat in the front row for the president’s address, said the state’s manufacturing sector is a vital part of the state’s rebounding economy as it accounts for 20 percent of the North Carolina gross domestic product.

“Nine percent of our employment is in this sector and it’s growing,” she said. “Folks are fearful that they remember the downturn in manufacturing 20 years ago. ... But this is really a new type of (manufacturing) industry coming back again.”

Decker said “an innovation center is a good example of the type of help we need” from the federal government to turn the research at the state’s prestigious universities into commercial products.

In addition to the governor, local Democratic Party officials and dignitaries met Obama at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Among them: Jamar McKoy, chairman of the Gaston County Democratic Party. “I think it’s awesome for our state,” McKoy said of Obama’s visit. He said he hoped the president would speak with the governor to “change some of his policies.”

Likewise, Republican Party officials saw Obama’s visit in a political lens. State Party Chairman Claude Pope said the president’s primary mission in his visit is to bolster Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign for Senate re-election.

Republicans also are emphasizing Hagan’s absence, suggesting she is trying to distance herself from the president. Hagan has said she needed to remain in Washington ahead of floor votes Wednesday. She faces a tough re-election battle with her numbers sliding, thanks in part to the federal health care law.

Hours before Obama arrived in Raleigh, a new poll put his approval rating at 40 percent.

Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen said it’s the lowest ever rating for Obama in the Democratic firm’s monthly North Carolina poll. His disapproval rating is 54 percent with another 5 percent unsure.

The numbers are driven by dissatisfaction with the federal health care law, which musters 38 percent approval in North Carolina compared to 48 percent who are opposed.

State Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat who attended the speech, said the president’s numbers will rebound as the federal health care law roll out improves. “Americans need to see results and they are starting to see results” he said.

He also applauded the bipartisan focus on manufacturing. “That’s the way government should work,” he said. “It’s about promoting high-tech investment and jobs in North Carolina.”

See a video of speech at CharlotteObserver.com.