President Obama seeks help outside Washington to enact key agenda items

January 30

As he addressed workers at a gas engine facility here, President Obama had a chance to revel in the kind of manufacturing resurgence his administration has sought to foster.

The 106-year-old plant, which has had a 28 percent uptick in sales orders since General Electric took it over in 2011, has instituted a job-training program that provides high school students with a degree and an apprentice certificate after two years of work.

“We’re here because you’re doing some really good stuff that everyone needs to pay attention to,” Obama said.

The entire scene — complete with cheering, well-paid industrial workers and a table boasting the presidential seal where Obama can sign presidential memoranda — was aimed at conveying the president’s central message this year: that he can accomplish a range of policies outside Congress with the help of the private sector. Call it a new coalition of the willing.

It is part of an effort by Obama to change the direction of a presidency bogged down with problems, including tense relations with congressional Republicans opposed to most of his agenda. He has spent the past week undertaking a flurry of activities aimed at making incremental progress on the federal minimum wage, retirement savings and worker training.

Now the question is whether he can marshal enough resources to achieve his newly articulated economic vision.

On Friday, the president will play host to 300 firms at the White House that have pledged to hire individuals who have been out of work for at least six months.

“What we have done is to gather together 300 companies, just to start with, including, some of the top 50 companies in the country, companies like Wal-Mart and Apple, Ford and others, to say, Let’s establish best practices,’ ” Obama said in an interview with CNN on Thursday. “Because they’ve been unemployed . . . so long, folks are looking at that gap in the résumé and they’re weeding them out before these folks even get a chance for an interview.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters this week that Obama is determined to broaden the political conversation on economic and social issues.

“The president is not president of Washington — he’s the president of America,” Carney said. “And there’s a lot of activities happening around the country that is moving this country forward, that’s expanding opportunity. . . . And the president is embracing that and pushing forward in any way he can.”

Each of the stops on Obama’s two-day trip have embodied not just the specific policies he is arguing will improve the lives of middle-class Americans, but the kind of communal approach to politics he has espoused from the start of his career.

At a Costco in Lanham, Md., on Wednesday, he invoked the words of the company’s founder, Jim Sinegal, whom he described as “a great friend of mine and somebody who I greatly admire.”

“And Jim is rightly proud of everything he’s accomplished. ‘But,’ he said, ‘here’s the thing about the Costco story. We did not build our company in a vacuum. We built it in the greatest country on Earth. We built our company in a place where anyone can make it with hard work, a little luck, and a little help from their neighbors and their country.’ ’’

Obama made a similar point at a U.S. Steel plant in West Mifflin, Pa., arguing that the reason workers there have better retirement packages than many other Americans is because they had collectively bargained for those benefits through their union.

The leaders of several of these companies have come to the president’s aid, both on the campaign trail and in the policy realm. GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt chaired the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness until it was disbanded last year; Sinegal held a fundraiser for Obama in July 2012, and in the same month wrote a reelection campaign
e-mail blast for its supporters. Susan Botman — who is married to Costco’s other co-founder — collected more than $500,000 in donations for Obama’s reelection campaign.

The White House has been working to leverage its relationships with like-minded private-sector players, as shown in Friday’s unemployment event and a college summit that the president and first lady held earlier this month.

The efforts sometimes seem duplicative. On Thursday, the president signed a presidential memorandum ordering Vice President Biden to conduct what Obama called a “soup to nuts” review of federal job-training programs. But the House GOP leadership sent him a letter noting that the Government Accountability Office had already produced such a survey, and the House had passed legislation in March to consolidate them. And the $500 million community college fund competition the president began Thursday came from an existing federal program.

Thomas J. Riordan, president and chief executive of Neenah Enterprises in Neenah, Wis., said his casting and forging business could benefit from better training programs because his firm has 100 unfilled positions “lacking for skilled-trades folks.”

But he added that he hoped the new initiative would lead to “a centralized, streamlined approach. There are just too many government fingers in the pie, from an industry standpoint.”

Former White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said such events help shift the narrative by showing the president can still make progress on his priorities.

“You can go to these places and make it real,” Vietor said, referring to some of the anecdotes Obama mentioned in the State of the Union. “He is at his best when he is campaigning against an opponent, whether it’s John McCain, or Mitt Romney, or the cynicism in Washington.”

Even so, the shadow of congressional inaction hung over Obama’s trip outside Washington: During a stop in Nashville on Thursday afternoon, Obama visited a high school that just lost 15-year-old student Kevin Barbee to gun violence, an issue that has stalled on Capitol Hill. The president met privately with Barbee’s family before coming onstage, aides said.

Jaime Fuller in Washington contributed to this report.

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