By Perry Bacon Jr. and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 4:15 PM
MANITOWOC, WIS. - President Obama took his State of the Union message on the road Wednesday, declaring that America must "play to win the future" in a global competition for leadership on clean energy.
Launching the second half of his term in Wisconsin, a state he won easily in 2008 but saw shift sharply to the GOP in the 2010 congressional elections, Obama toured Orion Energy Systems, a power technology company, and renewed his pitch for greater U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.
"In this new and challenging time, when America is facing tougher competition from countries around the world than ever before, we've got to up our game," he said. "We're going to need to go all in. We're going to need to get serious about winning the future."
The trip was the first of many stops Obama is planning over the next month aimed at enlisting the public to push Congress for adoption of his ideas on education, innovation and other issues, administration officials said.
But Obama's visit to the Badger State had another purpose beyond generating support for his ideas in Congress.
He won Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008. But his approval rating in the state plunged well below 50 percent before Election Day 2010, helping lead to an electoral wipeout in Wisconsin in which Republicans won control of both houses of the state's legislature, the governorship, two U.S. House seats and a U.S. Senate seat.
Polls have shown a recent surge for Obama nationally, but he must recover his popularity in Midwestern states such as Iowa and Indiana - both of which saw major GOP gains in 2010 - in order to win a second White House term in 2012.
In a news conference in Washington on Wednesday, Wisconsin's new tea party-backed GOP senator, Ronald H. Johnson, raised the issues that led to the Republican victory, charging that "we are bankrupting this nation" and criticizing Obama's State of the Union speech.
"When President Obama mentions investment," Johnson said, "I'm afraid he means . . . government spending and government control."
The new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, who is also from Wisconsin, was equally dismissive. "Rhetoric alone will not eliminate the job-crushing deficits and the record unemployment that continue to hold back economic recovery," he said.
In his speech here, Obama reiterated the goals he set in Tuesday night's speech of having 80 percent of America's electricity come from clean-energy sources by 2035 and putting 1 million electric vehicles on the nation's roads by 2015.
"We need to get behind clean-energy companies like Orion. We need to get behind innovation," he told assembled employees on the factory floor. "That's how America will lead the world in clean energy."
But he cautioned that the United States has some catching up to do: "China is making these investments. They have already captured a big chunk of the solar market, partly because we fell down on the job. We didn't move as fast as we could have."
Echoing his declaration in the State of the Union address that "this is our generation's Sputnik moment," Obama reminded residents that it was in Manitowoc that a 20-pound chunk of the Soviet satellite crashed in 1962. Sputnik, the first satellite launched into orbit in 1957, "set the space race in motion," Obama said. "So I want to say to you today that it is here, more than 50 years later, that the race for the 21st century will be won."
Obama welcomed the commitment of Orion's chief executive, who told him that "we play to win" in designing and manufacturing energy-efficient and renewable energy technology.
"That's also what sets America apart," Obama said. "Here in America, we play to win. We don't play not to lose."
He added: "If we're on defense, if we're playing not to lose, somebody else is going to lap us. . . . So we've got to play to win. We've got to play to win the future. . . . If we, as a country, continue to invest in you, the American people, then I'm absolutely confident that America will win the future in this century as we did in the last."
Obama's post-State of the Union stop in Manitowoc (population 34,000) was the first appearance by a sitting president in the eastern Wisconsin town near Green Bay. He also toured two other companies here, but cut the visits short so that Air Force One could fly back to Andrews Air Force base ahead of bad weather in Washington.
The companies were selected to illustrate the kind of economic development Obama called for Tuesday night's hour-long speech. Orion Energy Systems works with large companies to reduce their energy costs, while Tower Tech Systems makes wind turbine towers. The president also visited Skana Aluminum Co., an aluminum manufacturer and rolling mill.
"These aren't just good jobs that can help you pay the bills and support your families," Obama said of Orion as he spoke to more than 200 people, mostly the company's employees. "These jobs are good for all of us because they make everybody's energy bills cheaper; they make the planet safer. What you do is sharpening America's competitive edge all around the world."
Obama seemed to find one issue that unifies everyone here: the Green Bay Packers, who beat Obama's favorite NFL team, the Chicago Bears, in a game Sunday that determined which team would go to the Super Bowl.
Immediately after Air Force One landed in Wisconsin, Obama was greeted by the mayor of Green Bay and the governor, both of whom presented him with Packers jerseys.
"Let me start by clearing something up," he said. "I am not here because I lost a bet. I just wanted to be clear about that. I have already gotten three Green Bay jerseys. I mean, I've only been on the ground for an hour."
Branigin reported from Washington.