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Obama holds competitiveness summit

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones

PITTSBURGH, PA -- Ingenuity, innovation, and alternative energy sources were the buzz words at the competitiveness summit Obama hosted here this morning to wrap up a three-week economic tour.

As he has done at every event over the course of his tour, the Illinois senator drew a contrast between his vision for America and McCain's. "He has supported and would continue an agenda that I believe has failed to keep pace with the challenges of the 21st century," Obama said. "I'm convinced that we must move in a new direction. If we have the courage to commit to change, the American people cannot just seize -- but shape -- the opportunities of the global economy. Together, we can author our own story. Together, we can pursue a 21st century leadership agenda that's focused on five areas: energy, education, health care, infrastructure, and innovation."

VIDEO: Sen. Barack Obama's communications director David Aselrod talks to "Morning Joe" about how Obama will be able to help the economy.

The presumptive Democratic nominee said the government, in partnership with the American people, must do more to help keep the country competitive, repeating the phrase "this can be the moment" to spell out the goals he hopes to achieve as president -- from ending the country's dependence on oil to committing to making higher education and affordable healthcare accessible to everyone.

Obama spoke at Carnegie Mellon University alongside 13 economic, industry, educational, and community-based leaders from around the country whom he brought together to discuss issues ranging from the need to find new sources of energy, to education and health care. Among the 10 men and three woman in attendance were GM Chairman and CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr.; MIT President Susan Hockfield; Geoffrey Canada, the president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone; Chairman and CEO of Revolution Health Steve Case (formerly the chairman and CEO of America Online); SEIU President Andy Stern; US Steel Chairman and CEO John Surma; Harold Varmus, the president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; former Transportation Secretary Federico Peña, who is also a former energy secretary; and retired Marine Gen. James Jones, whose name has been mentioned a VP possibility (but who also recently added a McCain event).

The panelists spent the most time -- the first 40 minutes -- talking about energy issues, including the need for more support for research and development and an infrastructure that can support new technologies. Obama turned first to Wagoner for his take on how the government could help automakers stay competitive while developing new technologies that can rely on alternative fuels.

"We start from a history, in which globally we've relied about 95% on oil to as the source of energy to power vehicles, and it's clear from the trends in oil prices and the demand for oil that we now need to move to a phase where we're going to diversify the sources of energy that are used in our sector and others as well. From our perspective that offers advantages including more stability in energy prices, energy security and addresses emissions issues as well. So this is, I think, an initiative that's really worth taking on," Wagoner said before going on to talk about the need for government support in developing new technologies and new sources of energy to stretch the oil available and bring alternative fuels online.

Participants spent the remainder of the time talking about how to improve education, increase access to affordable health care, and provide more support for science and innovation.

Canada drew applause when he lamented what he called an anti-intellectualism in America that trickled from the top down. "There is a sense in this country that in my belief is anti-intellectual. There is almost a case to be made against smart people and that has penetrated I think from the top leadership in this country right through the 'hood' where people look down on folk who are academically prepared gifted and we've gotta change this culture," he said. "America is fascinated by whether you can drink a beer. That's not, that should not be the qualification for a president. A president ought to be able to lead the nation in a direction where young people aspire for the kind of genius that's around this table."

The comment was notable given attempts by Obama's rivals to paint the Ivy League-educated lawyer as an elite, out-of-touch, country club liberal.

Obama made a point in his closing remarks to note that there were areas of agreement across party lines about what direction America should head. "When it comes to how we need to retool America to continue its greatness, we've got a lot of stuff that we can agree on and I think this panel is a testament, 'cause not everybody on here -- believe it or not, guys -- are Democrats. And not everybody here, I think, necessarily shares a broad political philosophy, but it shows you how clear our path should be."

After the nearly two hour-long event Wagoner and Canada were among panelists who spoke with the media. Wagoner said Obama' comments today  "reflected a much more detailed understanding of what's going on in the industry" than did his speech to Detroit automakers last year. But he declined to express any judgment about which candidate's energy policy would be best for business. Canada said he was unaware of McCain's education policy proposals, but that he was encouraged by some of Obama's plans, including his focus on early childhood education and efforts to recruit, train, and reward quality teachers.