By Arthur I. Cyr
President Barack Obama has simultaneously highlighted the vital importance of manufacturing to the American economy, and moved to capture this political high ground in the rapidly unfolding 2012 presidential campaign.
On June 8, Obama spoke at Northern Virginia Community College, endorsing the Skills Certification Program of the Manufacturing Institute, which is supported by the National Association of Manufacturers.
Major corporations backing the practical education initiative include Accenture, Discovery Communications, Motorola Solutions, Snap-on and others. The Aspen Institute's Skills for America's Future program, which seeks to link businesses with community and technical colleges, is helping to coordinate this involvement.
The White House has candidly described the speech as directly related to political campaign strategy. At one level, the emphasis on practical steps to increase manufacturing employment is damage control, given the ongoing problems in the national economy.
U.S. employment in manufacturing has experienced slow growth since 2010, making jobs created in this sector a lagging indicator in the sluggish recovery from an exceptionally severe recession. Moreover, in May the upward trend in employment suddenly halted. Unemployment has moved back up to 9.1 percent and in manufacturing has now reached 9.6 percent.
White House manufacturing policy adviser Ron Bloom emphasizes the manufacturing certificate program is an industry-led effort. Extensive programs already exist for job training and retraining in an array of occupations. This business initiative complements existing federal and state efforts, and reflects desire to not only reduce high unemployment, but also address structural difficulties in filling skilled positions whatever the overall economic climate.
Any Democratic President faces challenges in developing rapport with the traditional business communities, including manufacturing. The President arguably has taken a comparatively imaginative approach, emphasizing the accomplishments of business rather than the importance of Washington. He has tried to avoid confrontations, highlighting instead tangible commercial opportunities.
For example, when the U.S. hosted the September 2009 G20 economic summit, the White House selected Pittsburgh as the meeting site. That city was once the hub of enormous national steel production. Local leaders have adjusted with remarkable skill to steep decline in domestic steel manufacturing.
Today, Pittsburgh has a growing, deserved reputation for high-technology research, development and manufacturing, with current emphasis on energy-efficient facilities. This green dimension was a crucial ingredient in persuading President Obama to hold the summit there.
Early in that summit week, Bill Gates of Microsoft dedicated a new computer science complex at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University. Apple, Disney, Google and Intel are some of the other high-tech global companies with major facilities in the city. The Economist Intelligence Unit has described Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States.
The high-stakes 2012 presidential campaign is already underway, with a diverse array of Republicans competing hard for attention and center stage. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has just formally declared his presidential candidacy, rightly emphasizes substantial senior business experience.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is another Republican to watch. In a major speech at the University of Chicago last week, he proposed radical tax and other economic reforms, including privatizing the U.S. Postal Service.
President Obama's base of support is concentrated on the doctrinaire political left of the Democratic Party, but he has demonstrated much broader popular appeal, reflecting imaginative campaign tactics. He was elected in 2008 with more than 50 percent of the popular vote, a notable accomplishment for a post-World War II Democratic President. Don't count him out.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College. He is also a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com). E-mail him at email@example.com.