Making a quick day’s escape from what he called the political “gloom and doom” of Washington, President Barack Obama came to a gray and windy Austin on Thursday in search of some rays of light.
His agenda stalled only five months into his second term, the president, with no small irony, chose Texas as the place to try to get his political mojo back, to redirect the nation’s attention and Congress’ energy to issues of jobs, training and technological innovation. The visit kick-started a series of quick “job and opportunity” tours showcasing what works in places like Austin. His message: if Congress primed the pump, the good stuff happening in Austin could “trickle up” to the rest of America.
“You might not know this — because if you listen to all the doom and gloom in Washington, in politics, and you’re watching cable TV sometimes, you might get kind of thinking nothing is going right,” Obama said at his first stop at Manor’s New Tech High School, just outside Austin. “I chose Austin partly because I just love Austin, but also because there are some terrific things going on in this area, in communities like Manor. And there are terrific things going on in communities all across the country that are good models for all of America to follow.”
Ticking off the good news about job growth, especially in the tech sector, that has made Austin one of the fastest-growing cities in America, Obama said “I’ve always believed that the best ideas usually don’t start in Washington, they trickle up to Washington. So I’ve come to listen and learn and highlight some of the good work that’s being done.”
But he also came to try to relaunch some favorite jobs and training initiatives from his State of the Union address that have gotten lost in Washington’s slogging politics of sequestration. Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, in a conference call Thursday on the Austin trip, described sequestration as a plan “designed to be so stupid it wouldn’t take place,” but did.
New Tech is the very model of the kind of innovative, project-oriented school preparing students, who, as the president put it “don’t come from wealth or privilege,” for careers in the tech sector that Obama asked Congress for $300 million to help replicate.
Likewise, before leaving Washington for what amounted to a five-hour tour in Austin, the White House, reviving another State of the Union initiative, announced it was launching a competition to create three new manufacturing innovation institutes with $200 million that a few federal agencies, the sequester notwithstanding, had husbanded away. That’s just a taste of the $1 billion Obama wants Congress to appropriate to create 15 such centers.
But that is hardly likely.
The president, here the frustrated chief executive, offered the excited group of New Tech students a bit of project-oriented civics.
“Every once in a while, I’m going to need your help to lean on your elected representatives and say, hey, let’s do something about this; even if they don’t like it politically, if it’s a good idea, let’s go ahead and support it,” he said.
Before delivering his remarks at New Tech, the president, his easy rapport with high school students well in evidence, met with some students and their championship robots, playfully ducking into a defensive crouch when one of robots, sprang to life, skittering in his direction.
There was no sparring with Gov. Rick Perry, who, along with Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, greeted the president on the tarmac on his midday arrival at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Instead, Perry, who has seldom had a good word for Obama, let his Op-Ed and half-page ad – paid for with campaign cash – in the Austin American-Statesman do the talking for him, welcoming Obama to “take a look at our successful ‘Texas Model,’” and offering a “handy checklist for you to take back to Washington.” First on the checklist — “low taxes,” true north for Perry, who only Wednesday threatened the Texas Legislature, now in waning days of its biennial, 140-day session, with a special session in the heat of summer if they didn’t send him a balanced budget with $1.8 billion in tax relief.
The president’s itinerary included lunch at Stubbs BBQ with a teacher, a drywaller, a nurse and a small business owner where the topic was the president’s determination that “hard work leads to a decent living,” a formulation he has used in the past in calling for increasing the minimum wage to $9, another administration initiative that has entirely dropped from public view.
After Stubbs it was a visit to the Capital Factory, a tech startup incubator and work space downtown, where he talked about an executive order he had signed before leaving Washington, that would requiredata generated by the government to be made available in open, machine-readable formats. It is, said Steven Van Roekel, the United States chief information officer, the stuff that apps are made of.
In remarks at his last stop, Applied Materials, the nation’s leading chip-manufacturing equipment maker and part of what makes Austin a technology hub, the president resounded his themes — jobs, technological innovation, training, paying people enough to have a middle class life, and piercing the pervasive “gloom and doom” he was about to return to.
And, he said of his fleeting visit to Austin, “we also had good barbecue, which is necessary for economic growth.”