MANITOWOC, Wis. – President Barack Obama campaigned vigorously for his revamped economic message Wednesday, warning that other countries have been grasping for first place in the global marketplace as the U.S. fell down on the job.
The president delivered the argument in Wisconsin, a state that will be critical to his re-election prospects, a day after a State of the Union address where he contended that the U.S. has to step up its spending on innovation and infrastructure in order to compete globally and create jobs at home.
The president said Wednesday that while China invested in clean energy technologies, "we fell down on the job. We weren't moving as fast as we should have."
"We're going to need to go all in. We're going to need to get serious about winning the future," Obama said during a stop at Orion Energy Systems, a power technology company in the small town of Manitowoc. Obama showcased Orion as a leader in solar power and energy efficient technology, the kind of technologies the president argues are key for America's future competitiveness.
The president is calling for a new Sputnik moment, like the one in the 1950s when the Soviet Union beat the U.S. by sending a satellite into space — spurring the U.S. to pour money into science and technology programs and eventually make it to the moon.
The challenge resonated in Manitowoc, a small city on the shores of Lake Michigan known best as the place where a 20-pound chunk of the Sputnik satellite crashed in 1962, an event marked by an annual "Sputnikfest." Obama insisted he hadn't known of the Sputnik connection when he picked Manitowoc as the first audience for the themes of competitiveness and innovation he will push through his 2012 re-election campaign. But it gave him a fitting backdrop.
"It was part of a satellite called Sputnik that landed right here and that set the Space Race in motion," Obama said. "So I want to say to you today that it's here, more than 50 years later, that the race for the 21st Century will be won."
The stop at Orion was the first of three factory visits Obama made in Manitowoc. He also touted his small business initiatives at Skana Aluminum Company, which took out a $5 billion Small Business Administration loan in December, and at Tower Tech Systems, where he traded his suit coat for a black company fleece and was shown a plate roller where steel is shaped into wind tower and turbine structures. The stops were quick as the White House shortened Obama's Wisconsin visit so that Air Force One could beat a gathering storm back to Washington.
In his remarks Obama looked to highlight ways businesses like those would benefit from the proposals he outlined in Tuesday's address, including fresh downpayments in clean energy, research and technology. In his State of the Union Obama set a new goal of ensuring that by 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity comes from clean energy sources, though he defined those sources to include clean coal and nuclear, a definition not embraced by many environmentalists.
Still seeking to convince Americans that some of the unpopular economic decisions he made during the first two years of his administration were necessary, Obama also argued that those policies were responsible for the recovery that's begun to take hold.
"New manufacturing plants, and new hopes, are taking root," Obama said.
Obama's stop in Wisconsin, likely a key battleground state in 2012, underscored just how quickly the White House is refocusing on the president's fast-approaching reelection campaign. Though Obama won Wisconsin in 2008, the state turned sharply to the right during the November midterm elections, when the entire legislature and governor's office flipped from Democratic to Republican. Some blamed Obama and the national party for losing focus on jobs and the economy, although there are signs the Wisconsin economy is improving. Unemployment statewide was 7.5 percent in December, down from 8.3 percent in December 2009.
Obama's visit to Wisconsin also let him in for some inevitable ribbing over the Green Bay Packers' victory over the president's beloved hometown Chicago Bears this past weekend, which sent the Packers to the Super Bowl and the Bears home. On Wednesday Obama flew into the airport at Green Bay, where Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Green Bay Mayor James J. Schmitt greeted him with two Green Bay Packers' jerseys, one with Obama's name on the back and the other bearing the number 21, and name of Packer's cornerback Charles Woodson.