MILWAUKEE — President Barack Obama is using the resurgence of U.S. manufacturing to make an economic case for his re-election, touring factory floors and promoting a made-in-America message that seemed to fit his political campaign like, as it turned out Wednesday, lock and key.
Most presidents like to surround themselves with proud workers at factories, but Obama has gone further by making the rebounding manufacturing a key plank of his election-year agenda, arguing that the increasingly service-oriented U.S. economy needs to make things in order to prosper in the long run. He opened a three-day political trip with a stop in Wisconsin, a state he won handily in 2008 but is expected to pose more difficulty for him this year.
Obama called for tax cuts for American manufacturers and higher taxes for companies that move overseas, pressing what he hopes will be a winning campaign issue. He also acknowledged that many factories have closed, their jobs have gone overseas and a lot of them "are not going to come back."
"In a global economy, some companies will always find it more profitable to pick up and do business in other part of the world. That's just a fact," Obama said at the Master Lock plant in Milwaukee. "But that doesn't mean we have to sit by and settle for a lesser future."
Departing Milwaukee, Obama was to attend two fundraisers in Los Angeles. The first was an outdoor fundraising reception at the home of soap opera producer Bradley Bell and his wife, Colleen. The campaign expects 1,000 supporters to attend, with tickets starting at $250.
Obama also was to attend a dinner at Bell's home co-hosted by actor Will Ferrell and his wife, Viveca Paulin. Eighty people were expected, with tickets costing $35,800. The fundraising will benefit the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee for Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
When Obama talks up the economy, his focus on manufacturing is an essential ingredient, from his decision to rescue automakers General Motors and Chrysler to efforts to modernize plants and retrain workers. That message matters in places like Wisconsin.
Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 percentage points in 2008 but has watched his popularity fall amid tough economic conditions. Republicans, led by Gov. Scott Walker, captured nearly every statewide office two years ago and GOP leaders expect to target Obama throughout the Midwest this year.
Walker infuriated Democrats with efforts to curtail collective bargaining rights and faces a recall election later in the spring or summer that could serve as a bellwether for Obama in the state. Walker has said a win would deliver a "devastating blow" to Obama's re-election campaign.
Yet he was all smiles he greeted the president at the airport, a Milwaukee Brewers jersey in hand as a gift.
The president hit the road with good political news trailing him. Congress had reached a tentative agreement to extend a payroll tax cut that would mean an extra $40 per paycheck for a typical family, along with an extension of unemployment benefits. The payroll tax break was as the heart of Obama's jobs plan.
He suggested that a range of changes in the tax code could keep the momentum going. Obama has sought a reduction in tax rates for manufacturers and proposed tax credits that would cover moving expenses for companies that close production overseas and bring jobs back to the U.S.
He noted that Master Lock has returned about 100 jobs back to the United States from China since mid-2010 in response to higher labor and logistical costs in Asia.
"Manufacturing is coming back," Obama said. "The economy is getting stronger."
Administration officials contend manufacturing jobs are worth the investment, noting that 11 million people are employed in the sector and those jobs support spinoff jobs and spur a large amount of the nation's research-and-development efforts.
At Master Lock, the factory's setting was perfectly scripted for a president trying to portray a national economy on the mend after weathering an historic recession. Obama spoke in front of a backdrop of stacked orange metal boxes, many scratched and faded, and one of the boxes was stamped "Made in the USA" in black-and-white letters. One of the women he greeted in the factory wore a black T-shirt bearing on the back her company's slogan, "Tough under fire."
The manufacturing sector has taken its hits. Fifty years ago, a third of U.S. jobs were in manufacturing. Now even with the recent rebound, they account for just 9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Manufacturers shed 5.8 million jobs from 1999 to 2009 as many companies shifted jobs overseas to take advantage of lower costs and many plants were modernized and automated, allowing companies to do more with fewer workers.
But the sector has shown more vitality in recent months, bolstering Obama's case. Manufacturers added 50,000 jobs in January, the most in a year, and added 237,000 jobs in 2011, the largest annual boost since 1997. Of the 3.2 million jobs added by the economy since February 2010, about 400,000 are in manufacturing.
Others note that at times of high unemployment, Obama's optimistic take on the economy might fall flat with people struggling to pay their bills.
"He has to tread a fine line here trying to sound upbeat about the economy and tout any halfway decent statistics he can," said former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. "But at the same time, he's in danger of looking out of touch with how blue-collar workers feel about the economy, which is not good."
Obama plans to take the manufacturing message to Washington state on Friday, touring a Boeing facility at the end of a brisk three-day trip to the West Coast that will include eight fundraisers for his re-election campaign.