In the last of three stops on a two-day tour to reframe his broad economic vision for the nation, Obama pitched the need for enhanced American infrastructure at this port and others across the country and for better roads, bridges and power grids. But while he touted his efforts to streamline permitting, the president offered no new proposals for how Americans and their leaders could accelerate a lethargic economic recovery.
Obama warned that if Republicans continue with their "my way or the highway attitude," dire consequences could await for Americans. He encouraged voters to use next month's congressional recess to tell Republicans who'll be in their home districts that gridlock is unacceptable. "It could plunge us back into financial crisis," the president said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., questioned the point of Obama's big push in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday. "At some point, campaign season has to end and the working-with-others season has to begin," McConnell said. "At some point, you have to stop promising an 'ocean of tomorrows' and start actually working with the representatives of the people."
Obama praised Senate Republicans for being willing to compromise on issues like immigration, then drew a distinction with House Republicans, whom he repeatedly accused of bringing the economy to the brink. But Obama, too, at times has taken an uncompromising approach with ultimatums that force his opponents to give in or no deal. He's refused to consider any budget that includes the across-the-board, automatic spending cuts known as the sequester that went into effect in March.
The 2011 battle between Obama and House Republicans over raising the government's borrowing limit brought the nation close to default and resulted in a hard-fought budget deal. Obama says he won't be bullied on the debt ceiling again, but many in Washington believe the need to increase the borrowing cap later this year will prompt some kind of budget bargain.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows that pessimism about the economy remains widespread. The poll conducted last week found that 82 percent of Americans think the economy is in fair or poor condition and 67 percent are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. today. Forty-four percent think it will be a long time before the nation's economy recovers, while only 28 percent say it's currently recovering. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Even among Democrats, just 38 percent think the economy is recovering. But there are signs of slow improvement: The housing market is recovering, the stock market is booming, and unemployment is falling despite remaining uncomfortably high at 7.6 percent.
After a examining the port's giant cranes used to lift shipping containers onto ships, Obama spoke to a few hundred workers in the sweltering warehouse. He lamented that the U.S. was lagging behind China and Germany on fixing infrastructure and said that's why he's working to speed up the federal permitting process.
"The businesses of tomorrow are not going to locate near outdated roads and old ports," he said. Improvements to the port so more supertankers can come in would mean more workers spending more money at restaurants so that the waitress serving them, for example, can spend more money on an iPod, he said.
In making his plea for more spending on public works projects, the president is also relying on support from corporate leaders whose businesses either benefit from government financed construction or rely on up-to-date transportation systems to move their products. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been pressing Congress for greater spending on infrastructure and has allied itself with the president's effort, but in a statement Wednesday, chamber President Thomas Donohue also put some distance with Obama by saying such a public works initiative must be tied to less regulation, lower taxes and less overall government spending.
"The president correctly underscored the importance of infrastructure, education and immigration to our economic future," Donohue said. "But in order to grow and create lasting private sector jobs, we must have more economic freedom and while reining in government spending, taxes and debt."
The visit also marked Obama's first to the state since the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man charged in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. The case has generated a painful, nationwide debate about racial prejudice, but Obama didn't mention the case in his public remarks.
The broad economic themes Obama illustrated Thursday will be followed up in the coming weeks by another series of speeches drilling down on key sectors such as manufacturing, education, housing, retirement security and health care. Advisers say some of those speeches will contain more specific policy proposals, both for legislation and executive action Obama can take without congressional approval.
The first of those addresses was to come Tuesday, when Obama will travel to Chattanooga, Tenn., to promote American competitiveness at an Amazon fulfillment center, which packs and ships products to online purchasers. The White House said some new policy ideas will be unveiled during that visit.
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