Editor’s Note: This column was written by veteran Hoosier writer Brian Howey following President Obama’s visit to Elkhart County, Ind. The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com.
If there is an American city that will be chiseled into President Barack Obama’s legacy – whatever it turns out to be – it will be Elkhart. Of the 52 visits Obama has made to Indiana since March 2008, four of them have come in or close to this epicenter of the recreational vehicle industry.
During the presidential campaign, he vowed not to “forget” the city and county that was hit by $4.20 a gallon gas, a collapse of Wall Street credit and then the cascading bad news from companies like Monaco, Jayco and Keystone. By the time Obama returned on Feb. 9, the jobless rate was more than 15% – or a 10% increase, which he described as “astonishing.” In making his pitch for a $780 billion stimulus package, Obama told an overflow crowd at Concord High School, “I promised you back then that if elected, I’d do everything I could to help this community recover and that’s why I came back today, because I intend to keep my promise.”
Earlier visits gave clear indicators to what Obama had in mind. In the same gym on Aug. 6, 2008, candidate Obama reminded the city and nation that this energy dilemma was 30 years in the making. The gas lines of 1979 caused by the Iranian revolution plunged Elkhart into a near depression that peaked in 1982. “Elkhart, this did not happen by accident,” Obama said. “We’ve had a real energy problem with no real solutions. We didn’t have an energy plan, we had an oil company plan. We offered gimmicks, rather than solutions.”
And his Aug. 6, 2008, solutions?
Obama vowed to wean the U.S. off Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil within a decade. He vowed to charge scientists and engineers to “get behind a new approach to energy,” create more electric hybrid cars and RVs and expand the electric grid. He summoned the legacy of President Kennedy, who vowed to put an American on the moon “even though the technology didn’t exist” at the time and added, “We can set those kinds of goals today.”
On Feb. 9, 2009, President Obama described the stimulus plan that would pass eight days later in point No. 2: “There is money allocated in this plan to develop the new battery technologies that will allow not just cars but potentially RVs as well to be — to move into the next generation of plug-in hybrids that get much better gas mileage, that will wean ourselves off dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and will improve our environment and lessen the potential effects of greenhouse gases and climate change.”
Thus, the stage was set for Wednesday, when Obama ventured just south of Elkhart to the embattled town of Wakarusa, the scene of what he described as “the perfect storm.” The jobless rate here is 16%. Appearing at a Monaco RV plant – whose closing was a precursor to the emphatic pain that would follow – Obama brought home the bacon and provided a beacon. He announced $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funding for advanced battery and electric vehicle manufacturing at Wakarusa, with seven emerging Indiana companies and 11 in Michigan making the cut.
“The battle for America’s future will be fought in Elkhart, Detroit, Goshen, Pittsburgh, South Bend and Youngstown,” Obama said. “It will be won by making places like Elkhart what they once were.”
In announcing the $2.4 billion in grants – which he described as the “The largest boost in research in history” – Obama described his plan as “planting the seeds of progress and good paying jobs. That’s what we do best in America: We turn ideas into inventions and inventions into industries.”
With money coming to EnerDel and Allison Transmission in Indianapolis, Delphi in Kokomo, Magna in Muncie and Remy in Anderson, Obama explained, “For too long we failed to invest in this kind of innovative work, even as China and Japan were racing ahead. I’m committed to a strategy where American leads. This is about creating the infrastructure of innovation. Indiana is the second largest recipient of grant money.”
Obama said that the state – home to Purdue, Notre Dame, Indiana universities and IVY Tech – will be a place where engineers are educated and innovation will thrive. He reminded people that he has made the research and development tax credit permanent. “This tax credit returns $2 to the economy for every $1 spent. The real innovation depends not on government, but the potential of the American people,” Obama said. “They’ll figure out how to do it.”
Standing in the Monaco plant, Obama said, “Just a few months ago folks thought these factories were closed for good. These grants will create tens of thousands of jobs all across America.”
He added, “I don’t want to import a hybrid truck, I want to build a hybrid truck right here. I want to build a windmill right here in Indiana.”
Say what you want about our 44th president, but what is unmistakable is that he is staking the success of his presidency here in Indiana, even as rival politicians criticize his rescue of Chrysler and General Motors, his cap-and-trade plans, the health care reforms he calls vital to the economy, and the stimulus.
Elkhart becomes the common thread that bridges the crisis of 2008 to an unfolding future.