President Barack Obama’s campaign-style, jobs-focused swing through the Texas technology core on Thursday was notable mainly for what it left out—any plan for putting his proposals into law.
In less than six hours on the ground in the Austin area, Obama spoke with a high school robotics team, then the full high school. He lunched with a roundtable of residents over barbecue, and followed that with a three-part tour and listening session at Capital Factory, a downtown Austin tech start-up incubator and co-working space. He took a factory tour of a company that makes industrial equipment for the technology sector, and delivered a speech to employees at the plant.
“I’ve sent Congress proposals on a wide range of ideas,” Obama told the students at Manor New Technology High School. “But some of them have been blocked in Congress for, frankly, political reasons. I’m going to keep on trying.”
Ostensibly Obama flew to a Democratic enclave in the deep-red state to pitch his previously announced plan for 15 nationwide manufacturing innovation institutes and to highlight a new open-data initiative to make government releases “machine-readable.” But his remarks touched on everything from universal pre-kindergarten to more resources for manufacturing. He was mostly silent on the Washington stalemate he left behind before boarding Air Force One. The cable networks largely ignored the two speeches, which focused on a litany of previously announced proposals.
There is no new active jobs program in Washington. And the evidence is clear that since the last election the actions of the U.S. Congress have on net hurt job creation in the short term. The specter of sequestration likely slowed growth at the start of the year, as did the $85 billion in spending cuts that is expected to shave about a half point of gross domestic product growth this year. The tax increases that started 2013 took spending money out of the economy, reducing growth as well. Obama has some programs in the works—an infrastructure bank and efforts to speed refinances among them—but there has been no visible movement on the $1 billion he needs from Congress for his innovation centers, nor the dozens of other economic proposals he’s pitched and re-pitched. So he gives speeches.
“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,” he told the students.
White House officials said the visit wasn’t tied to any specific legislative push beyond the two executive actions taken Thursday, but they admitted that Obama was enjoying his time among the science fair projects and industrial machines. The fist-bumps he gave high school students, the tour of the company that helped make the machines that made the iPad and the look at the technology behind his Situation Room weather map all seemed to put a spring in the presidential step. He gushed about a custom-designed car for wheelchair users, and a cheaper 3-D camera to speed 3-D printing.
Capping off a day of chatting and touring with educators and innovators, Obama appeared reinvigorated, even if his agenda was not. Idle curiosity? Campaign withdrawal? Or just a chance to get away from Washington? Meeting with investors at Capital Factory, Obama lamented the mood in Washington, and praised work that’s happening on the ground here and around the country.
“One of the reasons to do this trip … If you watch the news, if you are based in Washington, sometimes you just sense doom and gloom,” Obama said, contrasting that to the legions who are “out there hustling every single day.” He heralded the job creators and the inventors — falling behind schedule taking questions from angel investors and boosting the engineers.
Just weeks ago Obama angrily complained about lawmakers rejecting his background check proposals, calling it a “pretty shameful day for Washington.” Earlier this week he decried cynicism in a commencement address at The Ohio State University, saying of the nation’s capital: “let me put this charitably: I think it’s fair to say our democracy isn’t working as well as we know it can.”
Frustrated, with his agenda stonewalled in Washington, the President was able Thursday to get away. And outside of the U.S. Capital he was able to find clear signs of hope.