Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks with employee Eric Hammerer as he tours the manufacturing facility at Master Lock, maker of security locks, prior to speaking on the economy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 15, 2012.
President Barack Obama called Wednesday for tax cuts for American manufacturers and higher taxes for companies that move overseas, pressing what he hopes will be a winning campaign issue.
Appearing at a Milwaukee padlock plant, Obama said the U.S. must do everything it can to make it more attractive for American businesses to stay put and grow here home, "and the place to start is our tax code."
The president visited Master Lock, a manufacturer that has brought jobs back to the United States. Reprising ideas from his State of the Union address, he asked Congress to approve tax system changes right away, including a minimum tax on multinational companies, so that American firms can't skirt taxes by moving jobs and profits overseas. He also pushed for tax breaks for businesses that move into communities that have been hurt by factories leaving town.
"Don't wait. Do it now. Get it done," Obama shouted, his jacket removed and shirtsleeves rolled up, as he stood in front of a pile of stacked orange metal boxes, including one stamped "Made in the USA."
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Obama, who is en route to a three-day West Coast fundraising swing, said he decided to visit Master Lock "because this company has been making the most of a huge opportunity that exists right now to bring jobs and manufacturing back to America." And he called on other businesses to follow its lead and take advantage of rising costs overseas and growing productivity at home.
Master Lock brought back 100 jobs to the U.S. from China in response to higher labor and logistical costs in Asia.
Pointing to a rebound in manufacturing and pushing U.S. businesses to extend it, the president said: "Ask what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed."
The president made his economic pitch as Congress was poised to advance a key component of the jobs agenda he unveiled last September. Lawmakers from both parties were praising an emerging deal Wednesday on extending a payroll tax cut through the end of the year and renewing jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. They hoped to send the measure to Obama within days.
The extension would be a win for Obama, who has said the cut in the Social Security payroll tax — amounting to about $40 per paycheck for the average worker — is vital to keeping the economy on the right path.
"I'm glad to see that Congress is making progress," Obama said. "It will make a real difference in the lives of millions of people and as soon as Congress sends an extension of this tax cut and unemployment insurance to my desk, I will sign it right away."
Obama has repeatedly talked up the nation's manufacturing base as an engine of growth and a sign of a recovering economy. He has urged companies to promote "insourcing," promising new tax incentives for businesses that bring jobs to the U.S. instead of shipping them overseas and eliminating tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs.
The manufacturing sector was hard-hit for more than a decade. Manufacturers shed 5.8 million jobs from 1999 to 2009 as many companies shifted jobs overseas to take advantage of lower costs and many plants were modernized and automated, allowing firms to do more with fewer workers.
But the sector has shown more vitality in recent months, bolstering Obama's case. Manufacturers added 50,000 jobs in January, the most in a year, and added 237,000 jobs in 2011, the largest annual boost since 1997. Of the 3.2 million jobs added by the economy since February 2010, about 400,000 are in manufacturing.
Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008 but is expected to face a more difficult challenge this year after Republicans captured nearly every statewide office two years ago and the president's standing declined in parts of the Midwest. Obama's visit coincided with the one-year anniversary of the first widespread protests against proposals from Republican Gov. Scott Walker to effectively end collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
Walker, who greeted Obama at the airport, had been scheduled to join him for the event at Master Lock but decided at the last minute not to attend. Walker's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said the governor was recovering from the flu and had to cancel his plans to go to the event.
The governor has been targeted for a recall election that could come in the spring or summer and has sought to define the outcome as a bellwether of how Obama will fare in Wisconsin next fall. Walker has said a win would deliver a "devastating blow" to Obama's re-election campaign.
But despite the political undertones Obama got a friendly tarmac welcome Wednesday from Walker, who presented him with a Milwaukee Brewers' jersey that bore the number 1 and Obama's name.
The two smiled and shook hands and Walker took a diplomatic tone in comments to a pool reporter at the airport: "Today's the president's day. I'm appreciative he's in Wisconsin, appreciative he's focused on manufacturing. We'll leave politics for another day."
The scene stood in stark contrast to Obama's tarmac moment with Arizona's Republican governor, Jan. Brewer, last month.
Most of Obama's trip will be devoted to fundraising. The president is holding eight fundraisers for his re-election campaign in the Los Angeles area, San Francisco and Seattle.
After departing Milwaukee, Obama was to attend two fundraisers in Los Angeles. The first is an outdoor fundraising reception at the home of soap opera producer Bradley Bell and his wife, Colleen, featuring a performance by the rock band the Foo Fighters. The campaign expects 1,000 supporters to attend, with tickets starting at $250.
Obama is also attending a dinner at Bell's home co-hosted by actor Will Ferrell and his wife, Viveca Paulin. Eighty people are expected to attend the dinner, with tickets costing $35,800. The fundraising will benefit the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee for Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.