- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 15, 2010

HOLLAND, Mich. | Just a few years ago, the U.S. produced only 2 percent of the world’s electric car batteries, but the Obama administration says that if the stimulus is allowed to work that could rise to 40 percent by 2015.

President Obama was in Michigan on Thursday to tout those potential gains as he joined the groundbreaking on a new battery-building plant, partly funded by stimulus dollars. It’s the latest stop on his “Recovery Summer” tour to rehabilitate the image of the embattled Recovery Act, in which he staked $862 billion of taxpayer money on the promise that government spending can help put the economy on sounder footing.

But so far, it’s been a tough sell - voters tell pollsters they don’t think the stimulus has helped much, they have a pessimistic view of the direction the country is taking, and are increasingly taking a dim view of Mr. Obama’s economic leadership overall.

Speaking at a muddy and sprawling construction site dotted by backhoes, Mr. Obama heralded the government’s role in helping Compact Power Inc. pay for its new facility with a $151 million stimulus grant, holding it up as an example of how public-private partnerships can help create new industries in the U.S.

“These aren’t just any jobs. These are jobs in the industries of the future,” said Mr. Obama. “For years, you’ve heard about manufacturing jobs disappearing overseas. You are leading the way in showing how manufacturing jobs are coming right back here to the United States of America.”

Compact Power is the last of nine advanced battery plants opening in the U.S. thanks to $2.4 billion in stimulus funds devoted to electric vehicles and their batteries. The company, an American subsidiary of Korean giant LG Chem Ltd., received the stimulus money in August and matched it with company funds.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who appeared alongside Mr. Obama on Thursday, said the plant will create 400 jobs. Over time, she said, economists expect advanced battery manufacturing to create 62,000 jobs in the state over the next decade.

“Our goal is to transform Michigan from the rust belt to the green belt,” she told the audience in this western Michigan town 25 miles south of Grand Rapids.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly plugged electric batteries as a key to not only additional new manufacturing jobs but also as an integral part of a clean-energy strategy - something he’s pushing as Congress remains stalled on enacting a broader global warming policy.

Some have questioned the near-term consumer demand for electric-powered vehicles. But the White House cited industry studies predicting as many as 3.7 million will be produced globally by 2015 - 40 percent of which will rely on batteries made in the U.S., according to federal estimates. Compact Power recently inked deals to produce batteries for the Chevy Volt and the Ford Focus.

Michigan has suffered as the U.S. auto industry tanked: Statewide unemployment is more than three percent above the national average - in June, economists measured it at 13.2 percent. In an op-ed in the Detroit News on Thursday, House Republican Leader John A. Boehner said such figures make Mr. Obama’s message a tough sell.

“When President Barack Obama speaks in Holland today, I hope that instead of trying to convince the people of a city suffering from 11.8 percent unemployment that our economy is ‘moving forward,’ he will listen closely when they ask, ‘Where are the jobs?’ ” the Ohio Republican wrote.

The visit to Michigan marks the fifth trip in Mr. Obama’s Recovery Summer, following stops in Columbus, Ohio; Racine, Wis.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Las Vegas. Several of those visits were dedicated to highlighting clean energy projects, while in Ohio he touted the 10,000th transportation project being funded by the stimulus.

In a Wednesday report, Mr. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers said the package had saved or created up to 3.6 million jobs, causing the economy to expand by up to 3.2 percent. But the public isn’t buying it, according to polls that show most Americans don’t believe the stimulus has improved the economy.

A recent Rasmussen poll measures those who support it at 29 percent - compared with 43 percent who said the bill hurt the economy - while a CBS survey out this week pegs the number who think the stimulus helped at 23 percent, compared with 18 percent who say it made things worse and a majority, 56 percent, who say it had no impact.

And the White House has had to field questions about whether Mr. Obama’s visits are helping.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said the economy fell far more than most analysts predicted in late 2008 and early 2009, but he said Mr. Obama’s policies have helped. He said the visits to tout stimulus projects are a way to underscore that.

“The president believes it’s important to have a regular conversation with the American people about what we’re doing on the economy and the types of things that he’s seeing,” Mr. Gibbs said.

But the GOP says the pitch is falling short.

“The Obama administration is trying to show pockets of improvement, but across the board Americans aren’t feeling it,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “So for President Obama to be out there in swing states and districts promoting this actually will hurt them in November.”

Mr. Bonjean said Americans want jobs but are so sour on additional spending that Mr. Obama would be better off promoting plans to reduce the deficit and debt.

Indeed, most polls show voters are increasingly skeptical of the skyrocketing federal deficit, making it all the more difficult for Mr. Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill to finagle extra spending through Congress. While the House has approved an extension of unemployment benefits, the effort has stalled in the upper chamber where conservative Democrats join Republicans in their uneasiness to add to the federal tab.