WAKARUSA, Ind. — President Barack Obama brought his latest prescription for recovery to this economically ravaged region of northern Indiana, promising Wednesday to “unleash prosperity for everybody, not just some.”
Obama told a gathering of community that the federal government would distribute $2.4 billion in 48 taxpayer grants to create next-generation electric cars and recreational vehicles. The grants will be divided among 25 states.
Afterward, the president talked with Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director and chief White House correspondent, who asked Obama questions submitted by msnbc.com readers. He said the grants would foster a clean environment, encourage new investments in science and boost education efforts — what he called “the pillars for communities like Elkhart to rebuild itself.”
It was Obama’s third trip to the Elkhart region since he became president in January, highlighting what aides say is his determination to keep the focus on ordinary Americans.
“If you look at what happened in Elkhart County in the span of a year, they went from a 5
percent unemployment rate up to almost a 19 percent unemployment rate,” Obama said, which he called “almost unheard of.”
“The most important thing we are going to have to do is to help Elkhart reinvent itself,” he said. “... If I’m successful at the end of four years, I will be able to look back and say Elkhart has not just come back from the brink but is actually poised to move forward in the 21st century.”
The interview gave Obama a chance to expand on the themes he touched upon in an address at the old Monaco RV plant here, where 1,400 people were laid off as the company went through a bankruptcy process that was completed in March.
The problem, he said, was that “for too long, we failed to invest in this kind of innovative work, even as countries like China and Japan were racing ahead.”
Navistar International Corp., which bought the plant this spring, will get $39.2 million to develop 400 advanced electric delivery trucks with a 100-mile range.
Seven of the 48 projects unveiled Wednesday will be in Indiana, Obama said — part of what he called “the largest investment in this kind of technology in American history.” Manufacturers in the area say this could help put people back to work in a part of the state where unemployment has neared 20 percent.
Aides said Obama’s goal was to connect directly with Americans so he could persuade them to wait patiently for the recovery to take hold.
“It’s nice to get out of Washington and spend some time with the people who sent me to Washington,” Obama said.
“We’re not just going to rescue the economy,” the president promised. “We’re going to rebuild it.”
Obama stressed that he wanted to “make sure America leads in the deployment and design of the next generation of American vehicles.”
“I don't want to import a hybrid car,” he said to loud applause. “I want to build a hybrid car right here.”
Officials projected that the 48 projects, which are part of Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus program, could create tens of thousands of jobs — a prospect that had residents of Wakarusa and the larger Elkhart area lining the streets Wednesday to see the president, even though Obama’s event was closed to the public.
“Anything that can help this area to bring jobs back to this area is important for us, and we would appreciate anything that is going to be done,” Jo Geleske, director of the Wakarusa Public Library, who said she would likely be part of the throng lining the streets as Obama makes his way to Monaco.
The crowds also included several groups of protesters, one of whom was Doug Till of Kalamazoo, Mich., who said he opposed the stimulus plan because it grew the federal deficit.
“If I personally don’t stand up and step in, how can I look my grandson in the eye?” Till asked. “He is being taxed on wages he hasn’t even earned. He’s been issued a credit card that’s been maxed out at over a half-million dollars, and he’ll be working his entire adult life to work off the interest on that debt, and it’s not fair.”
Other activists showed up to demonstrate in support of climate change legislation, sporting green hardhats and waving signs reading “Make our energy clean.”
As Congress breaks for the summer, the public message war is on, and Obama’s visit to Wakarusa is a key shot in that war.
“This area has been hit with a perfect storm of economic troubles,” Obama said. “We can’t afford to run this race at half-speed.”
Elkhart-Goshen has become the president’s version of Peoria, Ill.: If it will play in Elkhart, it might play across the country. Since he announced his campaign for president more than two years ago, Obama has dropped in on the area five times; it was in Elkhart that he made his first bolt outside the Washington Beltway as president, three weeks into the job, when he was lobbying for the stimulus.
That’s because the Elkhart-Goshen area is a microcosm of the problems afflicting the country. The area had an unemployment rate of 16.8 percent in June, up by 10 percentage points from last year. It’s higher than it was when Obama visited Elkhart in February, although the jobless rate has at least come down from 17.5 percent in May.
“Obviously, this is an area of the country that’s been particularly hard-hit as a result of the economic downturn,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Also on Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden was in Detroit to make a similar pitch at NextEnergy, a nonprofit group that helps private businesses research and develop alternative and renewable energy programs.
Of the new grants, $1.5 billion will go to the production of batteries and their components, $500 million will go for other components needed for the cars, like electric motors, and $400 million will go toward plug-in hybrid cars, training for technicians and related costs.
Besides being a titan of the RV business, Navistar, which owns Monaco, is also in the hybrid electric vehicle business. In March, it unveiled its newest hybrid truck, the International WorkStar Hybrid 4x4, billed as “the industry’s first four-wheel drive diesel-electric hybrid commercial truck.”
Obama was in the region only briefly and did not mingle with the public. But Stacy Hughes, 22, a lifelong Wakarusa resident, said Obama’s simple presence was good news.
“It can’t be a bad thing,” Hughes told The Truth. “Anything to help our town and get it national attention is important.”
Alex Johnson of msnbc.com; Josh Weinhold, Dustin Lawrence and Marilyn Odendahl of The Elkhart Truth; and NBC station WNDU of South Bend, Ind., contributed to this report.