WAKARUSA, Ind. – President Barack Obama returned to Elkhart County Wednesday to tout his economic stimulus program in an area plagued by the second greatest increase in unemployment in the nation.
"The battle for America's future will be fought and won in places like Elkart," the president said. "As the world grows more competitive, we can't afford to run the race at half speed."
The trip marked the president's fourth trip to Indiana as president, and his second to Elkart County. He carried the state narrowly over Republican John McCain in 2008, and his political aides are eager for his continued presence there.
Obama was met by hundreds of sign-carrying spectators lining the road to Monaco RV, a recreational vehicle manufacturing plant here. Many of the onlookers wore union T-shirts and carried signs urging passage for health care legislation that Obama has been pushing.
The president was in Indiana for only a few hours, but he came bearing gifts: $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funding for 48 new advanced battery and electric drive projects. The White House said the spending marks the largest-ever investment in advanced battery technology for hybrid and electric-drive vehicles and would generate tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
"I want the cars of the future and the technologies that power them to be developed and built right here in America," said Obama, standing in front of several recreational vehicles and trucks manufactured by the Navistar company.
Workers at the plant have been hit hard by the recession. Monaco went bankrupt last spring, threatening the jobs of 200 workers. Only seven workers were left at the facility after the bankruptcy, but many laid-off workers were rehired in June when Navistar bought many of Monaco's assets out of bankruptcy.
Navistar doesn’t walk away from the president's visit empty handed, either: the company received a $39 million grant to manufacture electric trucks.
The president told workers that there's still hard work ahead. "This country wasn't built just by griping and complaining, it was built by hard work and taking risks," Obama said. "And that's what we have to do."
The stimulus spending announced Wednesday will be divided into three tranches, according to a White House summary:
• $1.5 billion in grants to U.S.-based manufacturers to produce batteries and their components and to expand battery recycling capacity.
• $500 million in grants to U.S.-based manufacturers to produce electric drive components for vehicles.
• $400 million in grants to purchase thousands of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles for test demonstrations in several dozen locations, to deploy them and evaluate their performance, to install electric charging infrastructure and to provide education and workforce training.
The president’s campaign-style event came as the White House is moving to take credit for the beginnings of an economic recovery at the same time polls show increased skepticism among voters about the deficit spending the administration is using to shore up the economy.
Republicans, though, used the White House event to criticize Obama for what they see as his reckless spending.
“While many have offered ideas to grow our struggling economy, the trillion-dollar stimulus bill has so far been short on job creation and long on government debt,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “While any sign of the recession slowing is welcome news, it would be a mistake to credit $1 trillion in new government debt rather than the resilience and productivity of the American worker.”
The president’s visit to Elkhart County was just one element of a nation-wide push by the administration Wednesday to tout the $787 billion stimulus package.
Vice President Joe Biden went to Detroit to announce more than $1 billion in grants to companies and universities based in Michigan. And four other Cabinet officials fanned out throughout the country to hold similar events and distribute federal cash.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu went to Charlotte, N.C. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson went to St. Petersburg, Fla. Deputy Secretary Transportation John Porcari headed to Lyon Station, Pa. And Commerce Secretary Gary Locke went to Kansas City, Mo.
On a non-stimulus note, the president also signaled he's not giving up on health care legislation that's been struggling in Congress.
"I promise you we will pass reform by the end of the year," Obama said, "because the American people need it."