Obama fights perception that administration is out of time to make progress on his priorities

President Obama on Wednesday announced an initiative to bring together North Carolina businesses and educational institutions to strengthen the manufacturing sector. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

President Obama is touting 2014 as a “year of action,” but it might just as easily be called the year of “measured expectation.”

Contrary to the predictions of many in Washington, Congress is on the verge of passing a spending bill that restores funding to some of Obama’s top priorities, which were undermined by deep cuts that took effect last year. Obama will have new money for early-childhood education and infrastructure spending, although the sums involved are far less than what he says is necessary to create jobs and narrow inequality.

And on Wednesday, Obama came here to promote the creation of a new manufacturing innovation institute that he described as a model effort for the economy of the future. Obama said he would like to create 45 such institutions, but the White House has found money for only four — making it more a symbol of what he’d like to do than a demonstration of broad achievement.

“The pieces are there to restore some of the ground that the middle class has lost in recent decades,” Obama told a youthful crowd at North Carolina State University, which will lead the new institute. “But it requires us to take action. This has to be a year of action.”

Despite the lofty language, Obama begins 2014 with none of the boundless hope that characterized the start of his second term last year, when the president believed that his sizable reelection victory might break the Republican “fever” opposed to his policies. He had grand ambitions, hoping for a budget deal, an overhaul of immigration laws, a successful launch of the Affordable Care Act, near-universal preschool and other big ideas.

None of that happened. Instead, he got the deep spending cuts known as sequestration, a partial government shutdown and a botched health-care launch. Now, with the midterm elections and bitter congressional division casting a long shadow over his sixth year in office, Obama and his senior aides are fighting the perception that they are out of time to make progress on his priorities.

As a result, the White House is developing strategies to make clear it doesn’t need congressional support to make a difference, with the manufacturing institute announced Wednesday as a prime example.

On Thursday, Obama also plans to bring together college presidents at the White House to get them to commit to do a better job of recruiting low-income students. Next week, he will bring together corporate executives to urge them to hire long-term unemployed Americans.

Meanwhile, there is slim hope of substantial legislative success, as Obama struggles just to get Congress to pass a short-term extension of emergency unemployment benefits. The biggest promise centers on immigration reform, with Democrats hopeful that Republicans might agree to an overhaul later this year.

Obama’s pursuit of manufacturing institutes around the country underscores how difficult it is for executive actions to have an impact in such a large economy.

The institute here — funded with $70 million in Energy Department money and $70 million contributed by local universities and companies — will focus on the research, development and manufacture of more-energy-efficient technology.

After touring a local factory run by Vacon, a Finnish engineering company, Obama came to North Carolina State and said this kind of work can drive the next generation of jobs in America.

“We have always been about research, innovation, and then commercializing that research and innovation so that everybody can benefit,” Obama said. “And then we start selling our stuff all around the world. We start exporting it. And we create good jobs, and middle-class families, then, are able to buy the products that result from this innovation.”

The institute is being launched a year after Obama first called for three such centers to be started around the country in last year’s State of the Union address. While two more, funded by the Defense Department, will be announced soon, Obama is falling far short of his stated goal of setting up dozens more, which would require congressional support.

“In Germany, they’ve already got about 60 of these manufacturing innovation hubs. So we’ve got some catching up to do,” Obama said. “I don’t want the next big job-creating discovery, the research and technology, to be in Germany or China or Japan. I want it to be right here in the United States of America.”

Obama touted the manufacturing gains under his tenure, with companies adding 568,000 jobs back into the economy after the steep decline that accompanied the Great Recession.

But the true numbers are far less rosy than they seem, and the manufacturing workforce is still a fraction of what it was before the recession. Obama’s stated objective of adding 1 million new factory workers during his term also seems out of reach, with only 77,000 new workers last year.

“This is going to be a long haul,” Obama said Wednesday. “We’re not going to turn things around overnight.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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