Iowa Quad Cities (Riverdale, IA), Alcoa Aluminum Plant, Tuesday, June 28, 2011, 1:05 PM (CDT) President Barack Obama spoke to an invitation-only group of approximately 220 Alcoa Aluminum employees (10% of the work force, chosen by lottery) in the Iowa Quad Cities at 1:06 p.m. (CDT) on Tuesday, June 28, beginning his remarks with, “I know you’ve been seeing a lot of politicians around lately. Something tells me that you may see a few more before February is over, but, Iowa, you and I, we go a long way back—and those of you coming over from the Illinois side, we go even farther back.”
Iowa/Illinois Quad Cities
The Iowa/Illinois Quad City area, located on the Mississippi River encompassing Davenport, Iowa; Moline, Illinois ( Deere & Company corporate headquarters) and several other smaller communities, including Bettendorf (IA) and East Moline and Rock Island (IL) is joined by the I-74 bridge, which had to be swept by the Secret Service for bombs after the president’s plane landed in Moline, Illinois at approximately 12:30 p.m. Tuesday. The exact route the president’s motorcade was kept secret, but it’s no secret to those of us who live in the area that he would most likely have to take the I-74 bridge that joins the Iowa communities with the Illinois side of the river, encompassing an area of approximately 350,000 residents and making it the second most-populated area in the first-in-the-nation caucus Hawkeye state. (*I had to take it every day to go from East Moline, Illinois to Bettendorf, Iowa, and, right now, it’s a true trial as the bridge is one-lane in each direction every evening after work while construction occurs.)
Obama’s Iowa History
Iowa gave Barack Obama a win in the caucuses of 2008, despite many who placed bets on other contenders such as Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. (*One Associated Content poster told me he’d return to “eat his words” if I were right about Obama’s taking the prize.) At the Democratic National Convention, which I reported on live for Associated Content, Obama did not forget his early Iowa support, giving the Iowa delegation down-front status right next to his home state of Illinois.
Now, with an election looming, the economy still struggling, expensive wars ongoing on several fronts simultaneously, and Republican contenders resurrecting Democrat James Carvelle’s rhetorical mantra of “It’s the economy, Stupid” to blast the Democratic incumbent, Obama selected a business that just landed a $1 billion-dollar long-term contract to provide lightweight aluminum for Airbus commercial aircraft. [True, some of the company’s aluminum is also produced in Kitts Green, England and Belaya Kalitva, Russia, but the 65-year-old company is a United States bright spot in a sometimes-bleak economic picture.]
Alcoa’s Historical Roots
Obama limned the history of Alcoa this way, after saying, “In fact, it turns out that you’re responsible for the wings on Air Force One, so I want to thank all of you for getting me here in one piece. It was a pretty smooth ride, thanks to Alcoa.” “This company was founded by a college student named Charles Martin Hall 125 years ago and, back then, it produced about 50 lbs. of aluminum a day and it was so hard to sell that people kept telling Charles it was pointless to lock up the plant at night, because nobody needed the stuff. But when the Wright Brothers—you’ve heard of them, right? (laughter)—needed a lightweight material for their plane, they turned to Alcoa, and this company hasn’t looked back ever since.”
Secret Service Detail
The President appeared to be speaking easily in an almost extemporaneous off-the-cuff manner, with no teleprompter during his brief remarks. While he looked much grayer than in his 2008 days as a contender, he seemed to be in good spirits. Several Secret Service men backing the President did not look nearly as happy, with stern, sterner and sternest being the expressions spotted on the faces of several large bulky ear-pieced men.
One tall fellow immediately to Obama’s left and visible over his right shoulder during most of his remarks had a particularly beaklike nose. He was constantly scanning the crowd, hawk-like, making him almost appear to be a bird of prey casing about the area looking for dinner. All of the men assigned to the Presidential security detail were taking their work extremely seriously, taking no chances in the bi-partisan crowd (some of them overall-clad) that saw spectators like Governor Terry Branstadt (R, IA) and Tea Party new Congressiional representative from Illinois’ 17th Congressional district Bobby Schilling in their midst, along with local Mayors of Riverdale and Bettendorf.
$1 Billion Alcoa AirBus Deal Inked at Paris Air Show
In a Reuters interview after the finalization of the $1 billion-dollar deal at the Paris Air Show,Eric Roegner, President of Alcoa’s Forgings and Extrusions division, said that Alcoa’s newly-developed alloys (“The alloys are mostly new and revolutionary for the industry”), mixing aluminum with lithium, can produce a 12% improvement in fuel efficiency because the planes made with the new alloy used on wings and fuselage components, will be 10% lighter. Coupled with newer, more efficient jet engines, 15% savings in fuel efficiency is predicted.
As Obama said in his speech, “Alcoa has grown as America has grown. You also know that sometimes change can be tough. Sometimes, the old ways of doing things just won’t cut it any more…When change happens, you’ve got a choice: you can either keep on doing what you were doing and hope things work out, or you can make the decision that you can not only meet the challenges of the future, but you can help set the pace. That is true for this company, and it’s true for America.” The President referenced a retooling of their thinking that led to recapturing 80% of the global market for aluminum.
Economic Challenges of the Present
With a nod to the fact that “for better or worse, our generation has seen more than our fair share of economic change,” Obama touched on the trials and tribulations of the unemployed and the underemployed, pointing out “over the past 13 years, over one-third of our manufacturing jobs have finished. It’s not just that they’ve gone overseas, they use fewer workers. And, meanwhile, a lot of workers have seen their paychecks not keep up with rising costs. When I was running for President, I kept on thinking of all the folks I’d met during my travels who were feeling that squeeze. And then, in the closing weeks of the campaign, the bottom fell out of the economy. That demanded that we make some tough decisions, decisions that we now know have pulled us back from the brink.”
Obama cited 2 million new private sector jobs created in the past 15 months—250,000 in manufacturing, while acknowledging that for every job opening posted, there are 4 applicants. He said that a high school diploma, or even a college diploma, just doesn’t guarantee a job any more. “For a lot of Americans, it doesn’t matter if they’re still out of work or if they have a job that doesn’t pay enough or doesn’t pay the mortgage or pay the bills; we have a lot more work to do. The problems didn’t happen overnight , so we’re not going to solve them overnight.”
Obama’s attempts include a series of measures aimed at boosting the advanced manufacturing sector, include a $500 million fund announced last week in Pittsburgh which would leverage emerging technologies. There have been previous events to articulate the president’s vision for addressing the nation’s economic woes held in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Republicans quickly pointed out that Iowa has lost 9,700 manufacturing jobs since 2008 (Maytag in Newton, Iowa is one now-shuttered facility). However, in Riverdale, Iowa where Alcoa is located, the Quad Cities has as many manufacturing jobs now (24,400) as it had in early 2009. There was a slight dip in the manufacturing sector in early March of 2010, according to the Quad City Times, but it’s been on the upswing ever since.
Overall, this area’s unemployment rate of 6.6% was below the statewide average of 6.0%, which, in itself, is well below national averages that have soared as high as 9.1% and, (according to Fahreed Zakaria on a recent “Charlie Rose” show), when part-time workers who are not making enough to live on are factored in, the numbers can become almost as bleak as the numbers posted during the Great Depression.
No question that it’s a wintery economic climate out there and yet, said Dave Swenson of Iowa State University (Ames’) Economics department, “If I was trying to think of an area (in IA) representing manufacturnig as it’s going to be, it would be the Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids. Obama is pushing a message that we need to innovate and up our game a little.”
We Must Up Our Economic Game to Compete in Today’s Global Economy
This message of upping our economic game came through loud and clear on Tuesday with statements like this from President Obama: “I believe in an America where businesses lead the change and we’re moving forward, not just treading water…That’s how we’re gonna’ win the future, by doing the smart things right now, by helping the middle class grow. A big part of that future has to be a robust and growing manufacturing sector. We’ve got to make things right here in America. We’ve always made things right here in America. This plant has been in operation for 60 years and what we’ve learned is that we have to invest in new products. Some of the equipment right behind us cost $90 million dollars. That’s what made you (Alcoa) competitive: having the best workers and having the best equipment, and that’s what we have to do as a company and as a whole.”
Springboarding from the topic of changing to meet an ever-changing global economy, Obama reminded the audience: “That’s why, 2 years ago, we stood by the auto industry and kept some of our manufacturing from being sold for parts. And that’s why those industries are putting steelworkers to work today and adding jobs. We also told those companies that they’d have to make some changes to compete, so we brought people together and set the first fuel efficiency standards in 30 years.”
Obama commented that Alcoa has joined a partnership between the most innovative companies in the country, in the hopes of creating new jobs. “The idea is to create jobs now and to make sure that America stays on the cutting edge of technology for years to come.” A partnership to credential community college students in certain highly sought-after fields, preparing as many as 500,000 workers for hard-to-fill jobs was referenced. Said Obama, “The company will say, ‘Here’s what we need.’ The community college will certify students to be equipped to get that job. So, we’re also making it easier for students to become employed.” He cautioned, however, “There’s no silver bullet to reverse a decade of economic challenge. We’ve had problems for 10 years now.”
President References Political In-fighting in Washington, D.C.
In an oblique attack, Obama alluded to the near-stasis in the federal government, seemingly caused by the inability of the two feuding political parties to work together constructively for the good of the country. With an election looming, it sometimes appears that it is the express purpose of the opposition simply to obstruct. By so doing, the Republican hopefuls may feel they will gain ground in attempting to unseat the incumbent in the presidential election of 2012. But it is a Pyrrhic victory, pushing the nation to the brink of collapse, as with the recent Congressional rebuke regarding intervention in Libya, the strictly-along-party-lines failure to support a renewal of the Economic Development Administration program that has long created jobs (for every $1 of federal money, $7 was provided by the private sector, said Norman Goodman on his NPR radio show of June 22) and by obstructing the need to raise the debt ceiling, as was done 6 times during George W. Bush’s term, in order to keep the nation from grinding to a halt. (The country has until August 2, it is estimated by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner). The EDA bill failed 51-49, with all 47 Republicans voting against it, joined by 4 Democrats of the “not really a Democrat” Joe Leiberman stripe.
Said Obama, “I know many of you probably have family that are looking for work. When that happens, it’s tempting to become cynical and to start thinking negatively of the future, but that’s not the America I know or the America I see here in the Quads (*Note: first time I ever heard the area referenced as “the Quads”). People don’t give up. People don’t quit. Companies like Alcoa where reinvention is a part of life, I know you want to be a part of it. That spirit has always been part of the American spirit. Nobody’s perfect, but a team can be perfect. None of us, individually, but, as a team, America can perfect ourselves, but we have to start working like a team instead of having the squabbling we see in Washington all the time.”
“I promise you that if we continue to work and adapt and innovate and work like a team, America will lead the way forward and we will make the next century another part of the American way forward.”