At a high-tech manufacturing plant on Jacksonville’s Westside — which was little more than low-lying swampland only a few years ago — President Barack Obama on Friday sought to make a legacy-validating case that his 2009 stimulus package helped jump-start the nation’s sputtering economy.
“I came here to Saft to show what it means to invest in the future,” he said to employees, supporters and local officials gathered in a warehouse at Saft, a French firm that builds lithium-ion batteries at Cecil Commerce Center.
“We took an empty swamp and turned it into an engine for innovation.”
Saft’s plant, which got $95.5 million under Obama’s stimulus plan, along with $20.2 million in local and state incentives, opened 4 1/2 years ago and has been an attractive backdrop for politicians.
Facing the twilight of his presidency, Obama’s remarks in Jacksonville harkened back to the early days of his administration when the unemployment rate soared into double digits and about 800,000 jobs were lost each month. He views the $787 billion stimulus bill — which Republican lawmakers aggressively opposed — as a key reason many economic measures today have improved.
“Anybody who says we are not absolutely better off today than we were seven years ago, they’re not leveling with you,” Obama said. “They’re not telling you the truth.”
Yet Jacksonville is also a city that represents a more nuanced look at Obama’s legacy.
He toured Jacksonville’s port in 2013 and said projects like deepening the harbor — an expensive project long sought by local officials — “means more jobs at the terminals. That means more warehouses in the surrounding areas. That means more contractors are getting those jobs setting up those warehouses. That means they’ve got more money to spend at the restaurant.”
He didn’t discuss any specific plan for Jacksonville’s port, but local officials were hopeful his appearance augured success.
Federal money has never arrived.
Now, local officials are hoping the state government will front a substantial share of the nearly $700 million cost to get it moving forward as other competing ports along the East Coast are also racing for deeper harbors.
Obama’s focused his remarks Friday on what he considered his past successes turning around the nation’s economy. But he also turned to the days ahead.
He expressed frustration that the candidates running to replace him won’t concede the progress the country has made in recent years.
“You don’t hear a lot about this from the folks on the campaign trail,” Obama said.
Without acknowledging what’s worked in the past, “we may chase some snake oil and end up choosing policies that gets us back in the swamp,” he said.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign embraced that message.
“President Obama helped bring our economy back from the brink of depression, in part by making smart investments in projects like the Saft America advanced battery plant that helped put the people of Jacksonville back to work,” Clinton said in a statement released by her campaign Friday. “We need to build on this progress.”
Republicans, meanwhile, were ready to debate the past and the future.
“The Obama-Clinton stimulus failed to live up to expectations, yet this Administration and Democrats on the campaign trail continue to advocate for extreme liberal policies that have left the middle class behind,” said Ali Pardo, a Republican National Committee spokesman.
Before his remarks, Obama toured the Saft plant accompanied by Thomas Alcide, president of Saft America, and Chris Kaniut, the plant’s general manager. Several dozen Saft employees, elected officials — including U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown and Patrick Murphy, who are both Florida Democrats — and business leaders attended the event.
Obama arrived in Jacksonville around 12:20 p.m. when Air Force One touched down at Cecil Airport, which the federal government conveyed to the Jacksonville Aviation Authority in 1999 after closing the Navy base that had operated at the Westside site for decades.
None of his appearances were open to the general public, but a few dozen people were invited to the tarmac, including a group of military fatigue-wearing members of the Army National Guard, Navy, and Coast Guard.
Capt. Howard Wanamaker, the commanding officer for Jacksonville Naval Air Station, was the local dignitary who welcomed Obama to Jacksonville when he exited Air Force One. Obama then shook hands with the line of people standing on the tarmac as they held their smart phones in the air to snap photos.
He headed next on the four-mile ride to Saft, which was built on the northern half of the former Navy base, which the city is seeking to turn into a top-class industrial park. Saft executives and workers took him on a 10-minute tour of the plant, where he inspected industrial-sized lithium-ion batteries and watched a robotic arm lift battery cells as they moved through the manufacturing process to be charged.
“You see Wall-E over there,” Obama said, pointing to an automated vehicle that glides around the factory floor and picks up cells delivered to it by conveyors. “He’s coming.”
In his speech after the tour, Obama said advances in battery manufacturing mean “we’re not just making advanced batteries for cars, we’re putting them together so they’re making batteries the size of cars. We just saw them — some looked like trailer parks.”
City Councilman John Crescimbeni, who attended Obama’s remarks, remembers the council voting unanimously to provide incentive money for the factory. He said manufacturing is one of the industries the city targets for several reasons: They have a “huge” employment base and make significant investments that help boost the city’s taxrolls.
Crescimbeni said the city works hard to chase leads to bring these types of companies to Jacksonville. “I think we do a pretty good job,” Crescimbeni said.
OBAMA ADDRESSES SHOOTING
The president used the opening minutes of his remarks to address a shooting Thursday in a small Kansas town that left four people dead.
Obama has wanted Congress to pursue more gun regulations, but that has been an elusive goal amid stringent partisanship and staunch opposition from the National Rifle Association. Obama has repeatedly addressed this issue with increasing frustration in the aftermath of a series of mass shootings throughout his second term.
The lack of progress, he said Friday, is unacceptable.
“This comes after last weekend’s rampage in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where six more innocent Americans were gunned down,” Obama said. “And these acts may not dominate the news today, but these are two more communities in America that are torn apart by grief ... We cannot become numb to this.”
Nate Monroe: (904) 359-4289