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Obama Announces Institute to Create Manufacturing Jobs

January 16, 2014
The New York Times
Mark Landler

 It was President Obama’s first policy-related trip of 2014, but he used it to take care of some unfinished business from 2013.

With less than two weeks till his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, Mr. Obama hastened to make good on a pledge from last year’s speech, announcing the creation of a high-tech manufacturing institute aimed at creating well-paying jobs.

Speaking to 2,000 students at North Carolina State University, which is leading a group of universities and companies that established the institute, Mr. Obama said it was the kind of innovation that would reinvigorate the nation’s manufacturing economy.

“We’re not going to turn things around overnight,” Mr. Obama declared, referring to a decade of lost jobs in homegrown North Carolina industries like textiles and furniture making. But, he said, “we are going to start bringing those jobs back to America.”

Last week, the president checked off another initiative from last year’s address, announcing that the government had selected five communities to receive federal resources to help children and the needy. The program, known as “Promise Zones,” does not require new spending but will direct existing aid to these communities.

White House officials defended the time it took to announce the first manufacturing institute, saying these ventures require extensive planning and are chosen through competitions.

“If we had announced everything in a week,” the press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters, “you would have said it wasn’t serious, it wasn’t real, and the assessments made about where to launch these initiatives weren’t rigorous and substantive.”

This is the first of three such institutes the White House plans to announce in the coming weeks. It will be financed by a five-year, $70 million grant from the Department of Energy, which will be matched by funding from the consortium members, including the equipment maker John Deere and Delphi, an auto-parts maker.

The institute will use advanced semiconductor technology to develop a new generation of energy-efficient devices for automobiles, consumer electronics and industrial motors. Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Obama toured a Finnish company, Vacon, that makes drives used to control the speed of electric motors, to increase their energy efficiency.

Confessing that there was “a lot of physics” in the company’s presentation, the president seemed most interested in which of the components were made in the United States.

Mr. Obama regularly visits such factories to remind Americans that manufacturing has been a bright spot in the job market’s otherwise uneven record during his presidency. But this trip came after the release Friday of a surprisingly weak job report for December, which doused expectations that the job market would finally gain real momentum this year.

A day after Republicans and Democrats in the Senate failed to reach a deal to extend unemployment insurance, Mr. Obama noted Wednesday that North Carolina’s jobless rate was higher than the national average and urged Congress to “do the right thing” and find a solution.

The president also promoted other policies, including his health care law, which he said had contributed to the slowest growth in health costs in 50 years. At his mention of the glitch-ridden Affordable Care Act, he got a noisy cheer from the friendly young audience.

But there was another reliable barometer of Mr. Obama’s diminished popularity statewide: Senator Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat who faces an uphill re-election battle this year, skipped his speech, citing the press of Senate business in Washington. Republicans have singled out Ms. Hagan, hoping to lash her to the troubled rollout of the health care law.

Mr. Obama took note of Ms. Hagan’s absence, but said, “I want to thank her publicly for the great work she’s doing.”

Republicans in Congress said that if Mr. Obama were serious about reinvigorating the job market, he would support Republican-backed initiatives and approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The announcement Wednesday of the new manufacturing institute showcased the White House’s determination to press ahead with jobs programs, with or without Congress. Mr. Obama said he was determined to make 2014 “a year of action.”

But it also laid bare the limits of Mr. Obama’s authority, since Congress has stymied his more ambitious proposals that require legislation. In last year’s State of the Union address, the president announced a $1 billion plan, modeled on one in Germany, to create a network of 15 institutes that would develop new industries.

Mr. Obama extolled a pilot project in Youngstown, Ohio, that he said had turned a shuttered factory into a lab where workers were honing skills in three-dimensional printing.

But setting up 15 institutes would require congressional authorization. So last year, Mr. Obama narrowed his focus to establishing three institutes using existing funds and executive authority. At the same time, he increased his long-term goal to 45 institutes over 10 years, while acknowledging this would require congressional action.

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