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Obama plugs clean energy, stimulus

From NBC's Athena Jones
HOLLAND, Mich -- At the groundbreaking of an advanced battery plant here in one of the states hit hardest by the recession, President Obama touted the steps his administration has taken to put the economy back on track and help jumpstart a new industry.

Compact Power, Inc. is the ninth of nine new advanced battery factories to start construction as a result of $2.4 billion in stimulus money. Four of these nine plants are expected to be operational by the end of the year, according to the White House.

"This is going to lead to growth at local businesses like parts suppliers and restaurants; it will be a boost to the economy in the entire region" Obama said during brief remarks at the construction site. "Our goal has never been to create a government program, but to rather to unleash private-sector growth and we're seeing results."

Today's event is part of Obama's long-touted clean energy agenda -- which the White House says goes hand in hand with building a stronger foundation for the economy. The battery industry is a big focus this week as half a dozen Cabinet and other officials travel across the country visiting companies that received stimulus money to work on advanced batteries and electric vehicles.

In a conference call previewing the trip, David Sandalow, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Department of Energy, said this industry was critical for America's energy independence and part of reaching Obama's goal of million electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles on US roads by 2015, which the White House says is in line with a forecast from Deutsche Bank.

Batteries have become a favorite topic of the president's. At numerous events in recent weeks in Nevada, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and again today, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have cited a statistic about how the United States produced just 2 percent of the world's batteries for advanced vehicles before the stimulus and because of stimulus investments, the U.S. will have the capacity to produce 20 percent of these batteries by 2012 and up to 40 percent by 2015.

But today's trip is also part of the administration's efforts to show voters the steps they have taken, with the help of Democrats in Congress, are helping to turn the economy around, even as the unemployment rate remains high. Obama today criticized Republicans for trying to stand in the way of initiatives he says will help the American people and urged people to stick with him.

"The surest way out of the storms we've been in is to keep moving forward and not go backwards," he said. "There are some folks who want to go back -- who think that we should return to the policies that helped to lead to this recession."

A subsidiary of LG Chem, Compact Power matched a $151 million stimulus grant roughly dollar-for-dollar to build the Holland facility to make lithium ion batteries for the Chevy Volt and the new electric Ford Focus. Compact Power will purchase separator material -- an important component -- from Celgard, a North Carolina battery technology company the president visited in April.

The plant expects to employ 300 people in construction and another 300 to work in the factory once it's up and running. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said yesterday that the advanced battery industry would support 62,000 jobs in her state over the next decade. In Holland today, she called Michigan the "North American battery capital" and listed cities that would get new jobs in the coming years because of this new industry.

GOP continues criticism
But Republican critics say this is not enough. In an email, the Republican National Committee said the stimulus had "failed to create jobs in Michigan while wasting taxpayer money" and Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) wrote an op-ed in The Detroit News entitled "Spending spree won't fix our ailing economy," in which he slammed the stimulus and asked "Where are the jobs?"

"More government, fewer jobs: This isn't the picture of recovery; it's the epitome of failure," Boehner wrote. "To boost the economy and put people back to work, we need to stop the taxing-spending-and-borrowing-binge and cut Washington waste, stop job-killing tax increases, and provide small businesses with the certainty they need to get back on their feet."

The White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates 102,000 jobs were "created or saved" in Michigan by the Recovery Act as of June 2010, but it does not break down how many of those jobs are new ones. The state has spent some $8.7 billion of the $13.5 billion made available to it under the stimulus, according to the White House, with just over half being spent on tax breaks for working families and on unemployment benefits.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), who voted against the stimulus, was on hand for today's groundbreaking, a point not lost on Obama as he painted the GOP as the party of "no."

"They said no to tax cuts, they said no to small business loans, they said no to clean energy projects," Obama said. "Now, it doesn't stop them from being at ribbon-cuttings, but that's okay. I just want to make sure that everybody understands that this country would not be better off if this plant hadn't gotten built and if the clean energy package that made it possible wasn't in place."

Hoekstra, who is also running for governor, called the president's comment a "cheap shot" that was "unpresidential, arguing he had come in support of the people of this district and out of respect for the office of the president and for the company that is investing in this plant.

The congressman had hosted a morning conference call to argue that the president needed a broader agenda to stimulate the economy, rather than one that picks "winners and losers" among companies, giving special federal help to firms like Compact Power.

"It's the wrong strategy," Hoekstra told reporters on the call. "The wrong plan."

He also touched on the issue of uncertainty, saying banks and companies were handcuffed by uncertainty about how the financial regulatory overhaul and health care would affect them.