East Peoria, Ill. – President Obama's visit to the headquarters of the world's largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment Thursday turned out to be his first victory lap on the economic stimulus package, coming just one day after Congress agreed on a $789 billion compromise.
The president’s message – delivered from the shop floor of Caterpillar, Inc. – was unmistakable: working class jobs are back. And he sustained the upbeat tone even as news was breaking that back in Washington, his nominee for Commerce Secretary, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, was withdrawing from consideration because of “irresolvable conflicts” with the administration.
“If Congress passes our plan, this company will be able to rehire some of the folks who were just laid off,” Obama said, citing a promise from Caterpillar’s CEO that he would rehire workers who lost their jobs after the stimulus plan passes.
“And that's a story I'm confident will be repeated at companies across the country — companies that are currently struggling to borrow money, selling their products, struggling to make payroll, but could find themselves in a different position when we start implementing the plan,” he said, flanked by the Caterpillar’s signature yellow tractors bearing the unmistakable CAT label.
Although Senate and House leaders report reaching consensus on a stimulus bill that he could soon sign into law, Obama clearly was not taking the compromise for granted.
“Now, these past few weeks, we've had a spirited debate in Washington about this plan, and not everybody shares the same view about how we should move forward,” he said.
“But the debate is now coming to an end,” he continued. “It is time for Congress to act, and I hope they act in a bipartisan fashion.”
The president, who was joined by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, called out LaHood’s replacement in the House in attempt to win another Republican vote.
Rep. Aaron Schock, a Republican who voted against the stimulus package and whose district includes Caterpillar headquarters, was seated in the audience.
“Congressman Schock, where is he?” Obama said, asking him to stand up.
“Aaron's still trying to make up his mind about our recovery package,” Obama said, drawing laugher from the workers and residents in the crowd. “We know that all of you are going to talk to him after our event, because he's a very talented young man. I've got great confidence in him to do the right thing for the people of Peoria.”
Obama's visit was scheduled before it became clear that he would have a bill by his deadline of Monday.
He was drawn to this rural town about 160 miles outside of Chicago because of Caterpillar CEO Jim Owens’ promise this week to restore some of the company's job cuts if the stimulus plan passes.
“He really came to Washington with his sleeves rolled up,” Owens said, calling East Peoria “the heart of America.”
Caterpillar has been a chief employer in Peoria since its founding there in 1925. The town takes pride in being the site of the manufacturer’s world headquarters. A museum documenting Caterpillar’s history is in the works.
The local newspaper, The Journal Star, stripped a banner headline, “Welcome Mr. President” across its front page Thursday. Beneath it ran stories on a range of topics, from who will be on Air Force One, to a feature on “Obama waffles” – with strawberry – selling at a local restaurant for $5 a pop.
A story about Caterpillar offering buyouts to 2,000 workers was reserved for below the fold.
Obama sought again on Thursday to couch expectations of the economic plan, on which he has staked his presidency.
“Some of our plans might not always work out exactly the way we'd like,” he said. “Our recovery will likely be measured in terms of years and not months.”