Elkhart, Indiana, residents cheered President Obama Aug. 5 as he announced $2.4 billion in federal grants — $39 million of it for economically devastated Elkhart — to develop electric cars and trucks “right here in the U.S. of A.”
“This is more than an economic crisis,” the president told the crowd in a speech at the Navistar International Corporation factory in nearby Wakarusa. “Its goes to the heart and soul of a community.”
He derided those who see economic collapse of towns like Elkhart as “inevitable” and that they should be left to die. “I’m here because I believe that the battle for America’s future will be fought and won in places like Elkhart.”
He chided his Republican critics who “created the problem and now want to blame somebody else” for the deep economic crisis. Elkhart, population 53,000, was once home to a thriving recreational vehicle industry with a 2007 jobless rate of 4.8 percent. As the recession hammered the auto and RV industry, unemployment peaked at 18.9 percent in March, easing slightly to 16.8 percent in June. The town lost 15,000 jobs in the past year as RV and manufactured home sales plummeted.
It was Obama’s second visit to Elkhart in six months. He pointed out that the Indiana town has the second highest jobless rate in the nation. Yet he predicted a turn for the better. “Just a few months ago, folks thought these plants were closed for good. Now they are coming back to life,” he said. The shift to new, clean energy vehicles “will create “tens of thousands of jobs” across the nation. “I don’t want to have to import a hybrid car….a hybrid truck, a wind turbine,” he said. “I want to build that wind turbine right here in Indiana.”
He defended his $768 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, popularly known as the “economic stimulus” for provising middle-income tax relief, extending unemployment compensation for millions of jobless workers, and saving hundreds of thousands of public employees threatened by layoffs by deficit-stricken state and local governments. The stimulus package, he said, has also pumped billions into clean industries like electric powered trucks and cars and wind turbines, he said.
The president also argued that health care reform is crucial to economic recovery. “We must pass health care reform that brings down costs,” he said. “I promise you we will pass (health care) reform by the end of the year because the American people need relief.”
He urged support for his efforts to strengthen public education including increased federal funding of the nation’s system of community colleges. By 2020, he added, the U.S. should regain its position as the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates. “Energy innovation, health care, and education. These are the pillars of the new economy,” he said.
Some of the strongest applause from the crowd came when the president directed his fire at the right-wing naysayers seeking to obstruct or delay his reform program. “They don’t want to be constructive,” he said. “This country was not built by griping and complaining. It was built by working. There are folks out there who fail to meet their own responsibility, from Wall Street to Washington…We’ve got to set our sights higher, not lower…a brighter future for Elkhart, for Indiana, for the United States of America.”