Obama Takes Infrastructure Push to Wisconsin

By Jonathan Weisman
Wall Street Journal
January 26, 2011

MANITOWOC, Wis.—President Barack Obama came to this manufacturing town on the shores of Lake Michigan Wednesday to amplify his State of the Union call for more federal investment in infrastructure and technology.

Greeting him was a skeptical letter in the Milwaukee paper from Wisconsin’s newly elected, tea party-backed senator, Ron Johnson.

“We must pursue policies that will first limit and then begin to reduce the size, scope and cost of government,” the Republican businessman wrote.

President Obama tours Skana Aluminum Company with executives Jerry Keehan, left, and Tom Testwuide in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

With Mr. Obama’s calls in his State of the Union address for more spending on roads, high-speed rail and clean energy, the president has effectively doubled down on the economic policies that launched his administration—just weeks after midterm election voters appeared to reject them.

The stimulus law funded a competition for federal education money called Race to the Top. The president Tuesday night called for another round.

The stimulus launched a $7.2 billion initiative to spread high-speed Internet cable to underserved areas. The State of the Union message called for expanding that effort to include wireless coverage.

The stimulus funded the largest burst of infrastructure spending since President Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate highway system. On Tuesday, the president proposed still more infrastructure spending.

“If we as a country continue to invest in you, the American people, then I’m absolutely confident America will win the future in this century, as we did in the last,” Mr. Obama told cheering workers here at Orion Energy Systems, an energy efficiency and solar company.

In the audience was Wisconsin’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, who in one of his first acts in office had rejected the stimulus-funded high-speed rail link that the administration had planned to build between Milwaukee and Madison.

“The train has left the station in Wisconsin,” Mr. Walker said after the president’s speech. “We’re going to focus on things we can afford.”

The argument between the parties over government spending is likely to resonate through the year and into Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

The president carried Wisconsin by 14 percentage points in 2008, but Republicans roared back two years later to capture the governor’s mansion, the state legislature, two congressional seats and the Senate seat of a Democratic icon, Russ Feingold.

Mr. Walker on Wednesday tried to focus on areas of the State of the Union speech that he agreed with, which did not include the president’s push for more federal spending to boost the nation’s international competitiveness.

Mr. Walker instead stressed the president’s less stirring—and less detailed—calls for deficit reduction and an end to spending on lawmaker’s favored projects, known as earmarks.

White House aides said the programs launched Tuesday night were investments in the nation’s future in the global economy, whereas those Mr. Obama promoted before the November election were part of an economic rescue package.

But last August, when he visited an advanced battery plant in Menomonee Falls, Wis., Mr. Obama did not just tout the stimulus’s effect on the economy. His message also looked forward.

“We expect our commitment to clean energy to lead to more than 800,000 jobs by 2012,” he told a small crowd at ZBB Energy Corp. during the August visit.

The familiar nature of the president’s new pitch brought derision from Republicans. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, declared: “Meet your new old jobs plan.”

But with Mr. Obama’s perceived swing to the political center since the November elections, voters may be newly receptive to his message.

Ken Wetenkamp, an Orion employee from nearby Plymouth, Wis., voted for Mr. Walker in November and did not vote for Mr. Obama in 2008. He said he “was a little disappointed” when the governor killed the high-speed rail project. Moreover, he said he’s warming to what he called the president’s new direction.

“I like what I heard last night,” he said.

Rachel Bongle, a production worker at the plant, was blunter. Unemployment in the Green Bay area is down to 6.7% from 7.5% a year ago. That is well below the national unemployment rate of 9.4%.

But, she said, the president is offering assistance to her state and her industry.

“We need help,” she said, “and he sees that window of opportunity.”


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