By: Zachary A. Goldfarb, Washington Post
As he campaigns for reelection, President Obama has embraced soaring political rhetoric, pledging to harness the ingenuity of America “to bring manufacturing back.” In beat-up factory towns across the land, he has promoted a vision to rebuild manufacturing after decades of shuttered plants and vanishing middle class jobs.
But he wasn’t always so sure. Three years ago, confronting the issue in an Oval Office debate, Obama was less of the chest-thumping politician he is today. Vice President Biden led a group of advisers who were making the case for an ambitious plan to reverse the industry’s long decline.
Obama had witnessed the devastation of lost factory jobs from his earliest days as a community activist in Chicago and felt in his gut that there must be some way to help, but the president, a policy wonk and onetime professor, also wanted to know what the research showed.
“There’s a narrative that countries have to make things to be successful,” Obama said to his economic advisers. “What’s the evidence?”
His economists, top academics from schools like Harvard and MIT, replied that there wasn’t much evidence. In fact, they argued, manufacturing represented relatively few jobs in the nation’s economy. And governments had terrible records of investing in specific industries, anyway.
The advisers, on both sides of the debate, looked to the president for resolution.
“It’s a draw,” Obama said, failing to resolve the split within his team — or even within his own mind.
Today, Obama has settled that conflict in favor of manufacturing, a decision explained by politics, economics and the president’s trust in his own instincts, according to interviews with more than 30 current and former Obama advisers and others who’ve worked with the White House on manufacturing.
As he mulled whether to adopt policies to try to reverse manufacturing’s long decline, critics said, Obama risked allowing even more jobs to go overseas. The vast majority of manufacturing jobs lost in the recession have not come back — and today there are still fewer jobs in the sector than when Obama took office.
But now Obama is a man on a mission, pursuing major tax breaks for manufacturers, loans to help sell manufactured goods overseas, tougher trade enforcement to protect U.S. industries from foreign competition, investments in clean energy, high-tech manufacturing clusters and a range of other policies.
Obama has rallied in part because of pressure from his own party to find good-paying jobs for millions of factory workers, who sense that their economic future is slipping, or has slipped, away. He has followed recent economic evidence that has led him to believe that it is important — and feasible — for the government to take steps to revive manufacturing.
But he has also listened more closely to his political instincts, rejecting the view of many economists, including several on his team, that manufacturing doesn’t have an especially dynamic role to play in the nation’s economy. People who work closely with him say Obama has followed an impulse that the government must try to protect manufacturing workers — people who make things.