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On economy, Obama takes a new role: cheerleader

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Monday, January 31, 2011; 7:52 PM

He used to tour the country touting all the bills he had signed into law. But now, often with safety goggles covering his eyes, President Obama has become the host of what feels like a looping infomercial on American innovation.

There he was in North Carolina championing "biotechnology firms that are churning out jobs and businesses and life-saving discoveries." In New York, there were the "unbelievably impressive" turbines and generators being produced at a General Electric plant. In Wisconsin, it was the lighting fixtures that were "a model for the future."

Every once in a while on his roadshow tour of American factories, the Harvard-trained lawyer hints at the obvious: He doesn't know much about what he has just seen.

"As I was walking through the plant, you guys had put up some handy signs. So I knew what I was looking at," he joked in New York earlier this month.

In this new stage of his presidency, Obama, once derided as anti-business, has adopted a different tone: cheerleader.

The events are part of a shift in the administration's handling of the sluggish economy.

With the stimulus bill, the tax package that Congress approved in December and numerous incentives to encourage hiring that were in legislation over the past two years, the administration already has put in place many of its policies to spur economic growth. Republicans say those provisions largely haven't worked.

Voters still rank the economy as their top concern in public opinion polls. So instead of mostly promoting major legislation, Obama is hitting the road to rave about companies, schools and people who are creating jobs, trying to show that he has a vision for improving the American economy.

He will visit State College, Pa., on Wednesday to highlight a project there to make buildings more energy efficient, and administration officials will be at events across the country this week to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.

"About 10 years ago, Neal had an idea," Obama said last week in Wisconsin, referring to Neal Verfuerth, president of Orion Energy Systems, a company that creates energy-efficient technology.

"He calls it his epiphany. It was around 2:30 in the morning, but Neal hopped in his car and drove to the factory in Plymouth. It was one of those moments when the future couldn't wait until the morning. And he grabbed whatever tools he could find, a couple of 2-by-4s and broom handles."

Obama added, "So he started tinkering around until an engineer showed up. And what Neal had come up with was one of Orion's signature innovations - a new lighting fixture that produced twice the light with half the energy."

To be sure, the administration has planned more legislation to boost the economy. The White House's proposals for the federal budget, which will be released this month, are expected to include increases in funding for biomedical research and incentives for companies that work on especially clean energy technology.

The president has long endorsed new technologies, making several stops in the past two years at plants that produce electric-car batteries. But he used many of those visits to tout legislation such as the stimulus or to claim credit for its passage.

Now, Obama's new theme of "winning the future" includes not only the government's role in improving the country's economy, but the role of businesses, colleges and other private entities.

For the unemployment rate to drop, Obama needs companies to start hiring more and schools to retrain people to fill jobs that they aren't currently prepared for.

But whether presidential visits to factories will help persuade businesses to begin hiring again, the administration also has other goals in mind.

Obama says the trips help him interact with everyday Americans. But it's hard to imagine how: He usually arrives at a carefully selected factory in a swing state that produces an environmentally friendly product. He goes on a tour with the plant manager or chief executive, poses for pictures with a few workers and then heads to the stage to give his formal remarks. He was on the ground at a factory in Upstate New York earlier this month for less than three hours.

For the administration, however, the events communicate another message: The president cares about the economy, and you can tell because he's standing beside a huge white generator, peering closely at the technology and greeting one of the workers producing it. These images emerge on the front page of the next day's local paper with quotes from an enthusiastic commander in chief.

"I wanted to come to Orion. Orion is a leader in solar power and energy-efficient technology," Obama said. "Plus, the plant is just very cool."

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