Mount Holly, North Carolina - Mixing politics with policy, President Barack Obama returned to North Carolina on Wednesday to step up his wooing of this key election-year swing state and to propose new federal incentives to spur "clean energy" vehicles.
In a spirited speech at the Daimler Trucks manufacturing plant - a rare union shop in right-to-work North Carolina - Obama announced a $1 billion challenge to communities that, he said, could eventually reduce America's dependence on foreign oil and consumers' exposure to sticker-shock prices at the gas pump.
Those willing to shift to more energy-efficient vehicles, the president said, would be rewarded with bigger tax breaks of up to $10,000 as well as other federal assistance.
"To cities and towns all across the country, what we're going to say is: If you make a commitment to buy more advanced vehicles for your community - whether they run on electricity or biofuels or natural gas - we'll help you cut through the red tape and build fueling stations nearby," he told a crowd that included 450 of the Daimler plant's 1,450 employees.
"And we'll offer tax breaks to families that buy these cars (and) companies that buy the alternative fuel trucks like the ones that are made right here in Mount Holly."
The plant in Gaston County's second largest city not only manufactures diesel trucks, but also hybrid and natural gas versions. Last November, it became the first company to deliver its 1,000th natural gas truck.
At a time when the Obama administration is pressing the message that the U.S. economy is on the rebound, the president was also careful Wednesday to give a shout-out to the plant for hiring more than 1,000 people last year - many of whom had been laid off by Daimler during the depths of the recession.
"That is something to be proud of," Obama said. "Now, here at Daimler, you're not just building trucks. You're building better trucks."
Though the visit was an official taxpayer-funded White House trip, the president often sounded more like a candidate on the stump. He gigged unnamed GOP presidential candidates for "phony election-year promises" of $2-per-gallon gas and expressed his affection - in his words and in his wardrobe - for North Carolina, a state he narrowly carried in 2008 and has now visited four times in less than six months.
"(Charlotte Mayor) Anthony Foxx pointed out that I decided to wear a (sky-blue) tie that could be a Tar Heel," he said to applause. "But it's got a little Duke color in there, too."
In 2008, Obama lost Gaston County by a landslide, winning just 37 percent of the vote to Republican Sen. John McCain's 62 percent.
On Wednesday, state, local and national GOP officials greeted the Democratic president with statements blaming him for high gas prices and the state's unemployment rate.
"In the last three years, President Obama has spent valuable taxpayer dollars picking winners and losers and breaking his promises to keep gas prices low and to increase the number of electric cars on the road," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "There is no reason to believe that (Wednesday's) promises will be any different."
Added Wayne King, vice chair of the North Carolina Republican Party: "A presidential visit certainly does not create jobs, and that's what North Carolina needs."
Mount Holly's congresswoman, GOP Rep. Sue Myrick, didn't attend. But several of the state's top Democrats showed up. Foxx and Gov. Bev Perdue joined him for a tour of the truck plant. Also in the crowd were Mount Holly Mayor Bryan Hough and two Democratic members of Congress - Reps. Mel Watt of Charlotte and Heath Shuler of Bryson City.
During his tour, the president greeted workers, asked questions and posed for pictures.
"How come you're all dressed up?" Obama, who shed his coat and rolled up his sleeves, asked a sharply dressed woman who works at the plant.
At three plant stations, the president watched workers drop an engine onto a chassis, lower a cab and attach a hood assembly.
At one point, a manager pointed out an adjacent assembly line that was idled by the sour economy.
"We're trying to take care of that," Obama responded.
In his speech, the president called for an "all-of-the-above" energy policy, with more use of biofuels as well as wind power, solar energy and nuclear power.
"We can't just keep relying on the old way of doing business," he said.
In what promises to be a 2012 campaign call-and-response - and an attempt to redirect blame for high gas prices - Obama also said it was time to end tax subsidies for oil companies.
"We're giving them extra billions of dollars on top of near-record profits that they're already making," the president said. "Anybody think that's a good idea?"
"No!" came the response.
"Me neither," Obama continued. "It's time to end that taxpayer giveaway ... (and) invest in clean energy that's never been more promising."
The scene Wednesday would have made for a good Obama campaign TV ad.
Kenney Crawford, 52, a plant employee for almost 29 years, wore a shirt with an image of the First Family, a coat with the picture of the president and a hat that spelled out Barack Obama.
"The man knows what he's doing," Crawford said about the incentives Obama announced.
Plant team leader Timothy Melton, who'd been hired back last April after being laid off for more than two years, said he also liked having a president of the United States come to the plant: "I'm not a Democrat, but I respect the office of president."
Then there was this crowd reaction when Obama said getting America to where it needs to be on energy may take more than one term in the White House.
"Four more years!" the crowd roared back.
After the event, as the presidential motorcade started to roll away, Terry McClain of Mount Holly waved goodbye alongside his 2-year-old nephew, A.J.
"This was the most exciting experience of my life," said McClain, 48, who works with a cleaning service in the Freightliner plant. "I hope the president will continue to give inspiration and hope for better jobs. I think it'll be a legacy of his presidency that he came out here to Mount Holly to check on the common working man."
(Charlotte Observer staff writers Joe Depriest and Steve Lyttle contributed to this report.)
© 2012 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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