President Obama visited ground zero of the movement to end collective bargaining rights for public employees Wednesday, meeting briefly in Wisconsin with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and advocating tax policies to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.
“We are not going back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt and phony financial profits,” Mr. Obama said after a tour of the unionized Milwaukee plant of padlock maker Master Lock. “It is time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that are creating jobs right here in the United States of America.”
He praised Master Lock for bringing back about 100 jobs from overseas since 2010, saying, “that’s what happens when unions and employers work together to create good jobs.”
Mr. Obama outlined his administration’s pending plan for corporate tax reform, saying he would end tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs or keep profits overseas. He said every multinational firm should pay a “basic minimum tax” and called for a cut in the top 35 percent corporate tax rate for American manufacturers.
“This Congress should send me these tax reforms, and I will sign them right away,” Mr. Obama said. “The recovery is speeding up. We’re moving in the right direction. We have to do everything in our power to keep our foot on the gas.”
Milwaukee is the first stop on the president’s three-day trip, which also includes California and Washington state. While the focus of his remarks in Wisconsin was restoring manufacturing, Mr. Obama’s visit also underscored the state’s importance in electoral politics.
The president won Wisconsin by 14 percentage points in 2008, but faces a tougher slog this year. Republicans captured nearly every statewide office two years ago, giving Mr. Walker the impetus he needed to roll back collective bargaining rights for public employees in an effort to balance the state’s budget.
Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Walker last year for “an assault on unions,” prompting the governor to advise the president to focus on balancing the federal budget. And Mr. Walker told a conference of conservatives in Washington last week that Wisconsin could deal “a devastating blow” to the president’s re-election chances this fall.
In spite of those tensions, Mr. Walker did greet the president at the airport in Milwaukee and presented him with a Brewers baseball jersey. But the governor bowed out of the planned Master Lock tour with Mr. Obama, saying he had a stomach flu. Mr. Walker said his decision not to accompany the president to the plant had nothing to do with politics.
“If it was politics, I wouldn’t have greeted him here,” Mr. Walker told a pool reporter traveling with the president. “Today’s the president’s day. I’m appreciative he’s in Wisconsin, appreciative he’s focused on manufacturing. We’ll leave politics for another day.”
Mr. Walker is the target of a recall election that could come in the spring or summer. Both sides in the debate are portraying the recall election as a test of how Mr. Obama will fare in Wisconsin this year.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a native of Wisconsin, called Mr. Obama’s visit “nothing more than yet another taxpayer-paid […] campaign stop by the president.”
Coinciding with his speech on the economy, Mr. Obama seized on a positive economic report Wednesday showing that manufacturing production rose 0.7 percent in January.
“Our job is to seize this moment of opportunity to create new American jobs and American manufacturing,” the president said. “And the place to start is our tax code.”
Economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisers Inc., said the news on manufacturing was encouraging.
“The real measure of the economy is manufacturing production, and that soared for the second consecutive month,” Mr. Naroff said. “The recovery is picking up steam and most industries, especially the vehicle sector, are benefiting.”
Mr. Obama reminded his audience of his support for bailing out the auto industry, and took a veiled dig at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who opposed the bailout.
“I took office at a time when the American auto industry was on the verge of collapse,” Mr. Obama said. “Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen.”
U.S. manufacturers lost 5.8 million jobs from 1999 to 2009 as many companies shifted jobs overseas or automated their plants. But the sector added 237,000 jobs in 2011 and another 50,000 in January, prompting the president to claim the economy is making a comeback.
Mr. Obama is traveling to the West Coast on Wednesday night to begin a series of eight campaign fundraisers.
Among the events that the president will attend are an event at the Los Angeles home of soap-opera producer Bradley Bell, featuring a performance by the rock band Foo Fighters; and a dinner co-hosted by actor Will Ferrell.