The biggest announcement at Barack Obama’s appearance in Racine yesterday didn’t come from the stage, but in whispers among the hundreds of Bucyrus International union workers who showed up to picket the president’s town hall meeting.
They were prepared to protest Obama’s policy of limiting the construction of coal-fired power plants, which led the U.S. Export-Import Bank to refuse financing to an Indian coal company. That move threatened a contract between the Indian company and Bucyrus International, based in South Milwaukee, and the the possible end to 1,000 jobs in 13 states.
But the bank reversed itself Wednesday morning, agreeing to the financing after calls from Wisconsin politicians and business leaders. That changed the mood of the protesters from anger to happiness, as they then warmly greeted the presidential motorcade as it approached Racine’s Memorial Hall.
“We’re glad as a union,” Robert Folk, the recording secretary and union steward for the Steelworkers Union 1343 told the BizTimes. “The whole decision; for Bucyrus, for the union, for the members and for the suppliers, is beneficial for all of us and we thank Mr. Obama and the [Export-Import] Bank if they played a part in the new decision.”
Obama didn’t acknowledge the controversy that has swirled in Southeastern Wisconsin for the last few days, instead telling the audience that trade with foreign nations needs to be fair and on a level playing field. He said China has to stop undervaluing their currency, making their exports cheaper while increasing the cost of our imports.
“I believe in free trade. We can sell to anybody. And I want to expand our exports. I want to be able to sell products from Wisconsin all around the world,” Obama said. “So we want to enter into trade arrangements with other countries, but we want to make sure that there’s a quid pro quo; that if we open up our markets, they’re also opening up theirs. And that’s got to be a top priority.”
He continued his focus on the economy, explaining that even though the economy seems to be slowing again and consumer confidence is waning the $750 billion stimulus worked. His reason for the success – that things were so bad when he took over that even the current high unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and federal debt is not as bad as it might have been. For example, instead of losing 750,000 jobs each month, we are now have private industry job growth.
Obama failed to say that government job growth rose 10 times more than private industry job creation last month, however.
The president also touted a $250 billion tax cut that was included in the stimulus, which gave 95 percent of us a cushion against the lagging economy. The problem has been that none of us knew about it because the cut was to payroll taxes, and it was spread out across our 2009 paychecks.
“Economists will tell you if you give that tax break to people each time they get a paycheck, as opposed to in one lump sum, then they’re more likely to spend it, and that is a better way to stimulate the economy,” Obama said. “If I had been just thinking of politics I would have sent you one big check with my picture on it and said, ‘here’s your tax cut.’”
He added that another $250 billion in stimulus went to state and local governments to fill budget gaps and save public school teachers and safety officer. The final $250 billion went to construction projects spread over 2009 and 2010, such as the I-94 rebuild between Illinois and Milwaukee. Obama said these expenditures not only provided immediate jobs but opportunities for long-term expansion of businesses and industry.
Obama shifted blame onto the GOP, echoing sentiments from the 2008 campaign.
“The other party has sincere beliefs if we let banks, oil companies and insurance make their own rules, even after Wall Street crashed and BP oil well blew, we should keep doing what we have been doing. I’m not exaggerating. Cut taxes for wealthy, cut rules for corporations and cut working folks loose on their own. This is their sincere belief.”
And he agreed with the GOP about a return to fiscal discipline, but called them out on their spendthrift ways. “We have a problem with federal spending, but their policies turned a $237 billion surplus into a $1.3 trillion deficit. We can do something about spending, but I will remember how we got in this fix.”
After his 30 minute presentation, Obama took questions from six lucky members of the audience. He pledged to provide more mental health counseling to members of the military, work to remove the stigma of seeking mental health services in the military and to provide adequate time at home for active duty service members.
Obama promised two seventh-graders from Racine’s Prairie School that his administration was putting more money into the student loan and grant programs and were applying pressure on universities and colleges to control costs so they would be able to attend the college of their choice.
“We want all our young people to just take for granted they’re going to college.”
He added that life-long learning is part of his college funding plan, that workers in their 30’s and 40’s need to be able to access retraining when their jobs are lost or companies implement new technologies.
“That’s what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for you.”
Read the official transcript of Obama’s comments here.