In Wis., Obama pushes message on the future

Tours factories spurring drive to innovate

President Obama toured Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, Wis., to highlight his push for technological competitiveness. President Obama toured Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, Wis., to highlight his push for technological competitiveness. (Brian Kersey/ Getty Images)
By Jackie Calmes
New York Times / January 27, 2011

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MANITOWOC, Wis. — President Obama loves sports metaphors, and they were flying yesterday when he came to Green Bay Packers country to tour three factories and expand on the “winning the future’’ theme of his State of the Union address the night before.

In that spirit, Obama seemed to be taking something of a victory lap as he strode each plant floor in turn, joking with employees and extolling their companies’ successes — after two years spent reassuring fearful Americans that recession and high unemployment did not portend a nation in decline.

If Tuesday’s speech was meant to sound a new more optimistic note, Obama came to Wisconsin, a swing state in presidential elections, not only to repeat his message but to illustrate it. While unemployment remains above 9 percent nationwide, in this town it is under 8 percent — 4 percentage points lower than a year ago — partly because of hiring at the three factories, all of which have taken advantage of federal loans and tax incentives to retool, innovate, and expand.

“When America is facing tougher competition from countries around the world than ever before, we’ve got to up our game,’’ Obama told several hundred enthusiastic employees at Orion Energy Systems, which makes solar and other energy-efficient technology for commercial customers, at a site once occupied by a company that relocated overseas.

Obama, a fan of his hometown Chicago Bears, was even game about the fact that his remarks about playing to win had a special resonance in this town 40 miles from Green Bay, just days after the Packers defeated his Bears to secure a spot in the Super Bowl.

He accepted three green-and-gold Packers jerseys, including one that said “Obama 1,’’ and at Orion quoted the late Packers coach Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, saying, “ ‘There is only one place in my game, and that’s first place.’

“That’s the kind of determination to win that America needs to show right now,’’ Obama said to applause. “We need to win the future.’’

In an abbreviated version of his address to the joint session of Congress, Obama spelled out his vision that government has a role to play — if much reduced from the emergency bailouts and stimulus spending and tax cuts of the past two years — by fostering education, scientific research, and modern infrastructure and, through federal loans and tax incentives, acting as a junior partner and investor in American entrepreneurs, like Orion’s chief executive, Neal Verfuerth.

“It’s one thing to have a good idea, but as Neal and I were talking, a lot of times Wall Street doesn’t necessarily want to take a chance on a good idea until they’ve seen it proven,’’ Obama said. “Sometimes the research that’s required, nobody wants to pay for it. And that’s where we have to step in.’’

Obama’s call for increased government “investments’’ comes as he also is proposing to extend by two years a three-year freeze of spending in the slice of the federal budget that covers such domestic programs — meaning cuts deeper than a freeze in other programs.

Congressional Republicans are calling for much deeper domestic reductions; they have not spelled out those cuts.

The pressure on both parties to reduce the deficit was underscored yesterday when the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit for this fiscal year will reach $1.5 trillion.

In one passage of his remarks to workers here, Obama acknowledged that “taking responsibility for our deficits’’ was also essential for the nation’s future.