Obama Points to Florida Factory as Evidence That Stimulus Worked

Source: By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, The New York Times • Posted: Monday, February 29, 2016

President Obama arrived at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland en route to Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday.Credit Zach Gibson/The New York Times 

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. —  President Obama on Friday used a visit to a high-technology battery plant in Florida to argue that the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal subsidies he signed into law during his first days in office had bolstered the economy, transformed the nation’s energy sector, and positioned the United States for a strong rebound.

But Mr. Obama’s trip to the Saft America factory here, opened in 2011 with a $95.5 million investment from the Department of Energy, also highlighted the challenges that have tempered the economic recovery and the difficulty that the president has had in claiming credit for it.

“Saft is telling a story about the amazing work that people all across this country have done to bring America back from one of the worst financial crises of our history,” Mr. Obama said in a warehouse at the lithium-ion battery plant, built with the help of a grant program in the president’s $787 billion economic stimulus measure.

After touring the facility and watching a large robot named Wall-E assembling one of the batteries, the president called the factory “tangible evidence” that his stimulus package had worked and said that the economy was better off for it. “We took an empty swamp and turned it into an engine of innovation,” he said.

That engine, though, has sputtered as it has struggled to start here. Saft, based in Paris, announced last week that it was reducing the factory’s value because it had still not gained profitability in the competitive lithium-ion battery market. Saying he was “frustrated,” the company’s chief executive projected the plant might not be profitable for a few more years.

This month marks the seventh anniversary of the law’s enactment, and Mr. Obama is using the occasion to burnish his legacy, arguing that it was only because of his swift efforts to pump federal money into the economy when he took office in 2009 — and over near-unanimous Republican opposition — that the country recovered from the depths of a painful recession.

“At the time there were a bunch of folks who said, ‘Well, it’s not working, it’s not happening,’ because it didn’t happen overnight,” Mr. Obama said. “This is an example of the fruits of those investments.”

Saft stands as a counterpoint to Republicans’ scathing criticism of the green-energy portion of the stimulus law. Mr. Obama’s critics seized on Solyndra, a California solar equipment company that went bankrupt after receiving $535 million in Energy Department loan guarantees through the program, as proof that the law was wasteful and poorly overseen.

“The president’s critics threw a lot of dust in the air” about the program, said Dan Utech, a senior energy and climate adviser to Mr. Obama. “The dust has settled, and the results are clear — they were transformational.”

Saft estimated in 2011 that it would create 280 jobs and produce 370 megawatt hours annually of battery power, in line with the president’s drive to invest in renewable energy. Mr. Obama said on Friday that the company had surpassed that goal, creating nearly 300 jobs.

Still, the White House concedes that the economic resurgence during Mr. Obama’s tenure has done little to raise wages or erase the yawning income inequality gap. A study released on Thursday showed that the gap between America’s richest and poorest communities had widened since the president took office.

Mr. Obama addressed the disaffection many Americans still feel about the economy despite obvious indicators of a rebound, including an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, half of what it was when he took office. He said the rapid pace of innovation and the increasingly global economy have stoked anxiety and an impulse to turn inward.

“Things are changing fast, and that’s scary sometimes,” the president said. “It means that you’ve got to constantly retrain for the jobs of the future.”

Mr. Obama’s factory tour underscored the point. Much of the work he witnessed was automated, including a large yellow robotic arm that transferred cells to a tray and two robotic carts, Wall-E and another named Eve, that transported the trays to another part of the plant.

“Sometimes it’s disorienting,” Mr. Obama added, “but there’s so much possibility.”