President Barack Obama on Tuesday took his message of
strengthening the middle class to East Tennessee, where he challenged
Republicans to work across the political aisle to create "a grand bargain" that
would create jobs and help the economy.
In the first of a series of meetings planned across the country, Obama stood on stage at Chattanooga's massive Amazon.com distribution center among some 2,000 workers and supporters and called for simplifying the tax code and raising the minimum wage.
"So here's the bottom line: I'm willing to work with Republicans on reforming our corporate tax code, as long as we use the money from transitioning to a simpler tax system for a significant investment in creating middle-class jobs. That's the deal," he said.
The president unveiled a five-point framework that included new tax incentives for manufacturers, rebuilding infrastructure, creating jobs in wind, solar, and natural gas, exporting more goods and services to foreign countries and helping the unemployed.
"We're not lacking for ideas. We're just lacking for action.
And for much of the past two years, Washington has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to the middle class," Obama said.
He noted that it doesn't help companies like Amazon.com when hundreds of thousands of customers have less money to spend.
The speech drew criticism from Republicans who said the president was just regurgitating previous ideas.
"Certainly, the president gives great speeches, but great speeches don't create jobs. A lot of what we heard today is what we heard before. We'll wait and see. but I was not impressed," Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said.
While he supports changes to the corporate tax structure that would boost America's competitive edge, Devaney said what the president proposes is just another stimulus package. He pointed to the efforts of Tennessee Republicans who he said have made progress working to change the tax code and improve education.
"That's why businesses are relocating to Tennessee. We're number four in job growth because people realize this is a place to do business," Devaney said, noting the state's unemployment rate would be lower if it weren't for Obama's policies.
In his speech, Obama told the audience that many of his ideas to create jobs had been proposed before. He said his goal is to "get some of these proven ideas moving."
"You've heard them debated again and again these past few years. I proposed many of these ideas two years ago in the American Jobs Act. Some were passed by Congress. But most of them weren't, even if they're ideas that have historically had Republican support," he said.
He also noted efforts to fix the health care system, investments made in American technologies and changes to the tax code in favor of working families.
A number of Republicans skipped the event, including Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero was in attendance and said the president's emphasis on the middle class is important because "we used to have a much larger, stronger middle class and that seems to have evaporated."
"I think we need to continue to invest. That's our strategy in Knoxville. We believe in reinvesting. We're doing that with our downtown projects," Rogero said pointing to the city's recent $1.45 million acquisition of the McClung Warehouses.
Developers, she added, will come in to invest "and before you know it you've got this building back on the tax rolls. That's the type of thing that the president is talking about, investing in our infrastructure and investing in jobs. I think it's a good message."
Oak Ridge National Lab Director Thom Mason said one of the things that caught his attention was the president's talk around manufacturing innovation institutes, a pilot program that connects businesses, universities and federal agencies with communities to create high-tech jobs.
The president is calling to triple the number of those institutes to 45, which he said would create a network that would guarantee that "the next revolution in manufacturing is 'Made in America.' "
"We're very interested in getting our ideas out into the marketplace, so being able to work with the private sector and transfer the technology is important," Mason said.
"It's also important to see it translate into manufacturing domestically so the job creation goes with it."
The president's speech comes on the heels of news this week that Amazon.com will hire 5,000 full-time fulfillment workers across the country and another 2,000 customer service representatives, including dozens jobs in Chattanooga.
Obama said businesses have created 7.2 million new jobs over the last 40 months and the country is off to its best private-sector job growth since 1999.
Bringing it home for Tennesseans, he touted the success of GM and the UAW to bring back to work 1,800 autoworkers in the once-closed plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.
"There are no gimmicks that create jobs," he said.
"There are no simple tricks to grow the economy. What we need is a serious, steady, long-term American strategy that reverses the long erosion of middle class security and gives everyone a fair shot to get ahead. More good jobs that pay decent wages. A better bargain for the middle class. An economy that grows from the middle out. This isn't what I'm going to focus on just for the next few months; this is what I'm going to focus on for every one of the 1,270 days left in my presidency because this is where I believe America needs to go."
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