WAKARUSA, IND. — President Obama returned Wednesday to this economically hard-hit stretch of northern Indiana for the fourth time in 15 months, proclaiming that the government's economic stimulus program is working and has begun to switch gears from rescue to recovery.
As part of that effort, Obama announced $2.4 billion in federal grants to boost U.S. production of electric cars, a key component of his administration's push to reduce oil imports and cut greenhouse gas emissions. The money comes from the $787-billion economic stimulus bill that Congress passed this year.
Obama spoke at a recreational vehicle plant that closed months ago -- cutting at least 1,400 jobs in Elkhart County. The plant was sold this year and has been slowly recalling workers.
"I believe our ability to recover -- and to prosper -- as a nation depends on what happens in communities just like this one," Obama said.
He added that the battle for the nation's future would be "won by making places like Elkhart what they once were and can be again . . . bustling, whirring, humming engines of American prosperity."
The president asked residents to have faith, adding that while the signs of recovery may be difficult for them to see, the country is easing out of the recession.
"Energy and innovation, healthcare and education -- these are the pillars of the new foundation that we have to build," Obama said. "This is how we won't just rescue the economy, but we're going to rebuild it stronger than before."
For many in the heartland, recovery is still elusive. In the nearby city of Elkhart, where more than 45% of the businesses are in manufacturing and one-quarter of those are tied to the RV industry, more than a dozen RV factories have shut down in the last 12 months.
Industrial production has fallen off 27%, year over year, and the county unemployment rate stands at about 17%.
Hundreds of residents lined the grass-covered hills across the street from the Monaco RV plant this morning, waving signs that pleaded for jobs to come to the area.
In the crowd, Shelley Ahlersmeyer, a part-time paralegal who lives in Warsaw, south of Wakarusa, said that too many of her friends and family were having trouble finding work to call the stimulus plan a success.
"I keep feeling that Obama's still in campaign mode: making lots of promises, giving us few details and not giving us a lot of results," said Ahlersmeyer, 50. "Until there are jobs, why tackle healthcare? Why not fix one thing first?"
Many onlookers held signs on healthcare, some urging lawmakers to pass an overhaul bill and others urging them to reject it.
Robert Stevens, 34, a painter for Monaco who was in the audience on the factory floor, said that even though he was working again, he couldn't afford to join the company's health plan.
"It was too expensive," he said. "I'm grateful to be working. But if we can't make enough money to pay for the insurance, then we need a better plan."
The grants announced by Obama on Wednesday are being awarded to companies that will create hybrid and electric cars and other pieces of a green transportation infrastructure.
The money will be divided among 48 projects in 25 states, with the largest portion heading to companies in Michigan and Indiana, where the collapse of the automotive industry has devastated dozens of communities.
Most of the money -- $1.5 billion -- will go toward developing advanced batteries that will allow electric cars to drive longer distances on a single charge. An additional $500 million will fund drivetrains for electric cars, and $400 million will purchase and support thousands of electric vehicles for demonstration models.
One of the recipients of the grants was the once-closed Monaco plant, which was purchased by another company and reopened this year. The company was awarded $39 million to build 400 advanced electric trucks with a range of 100 miles.
"Just a few months ago, folks thought that these factories might be closed for good," Obama told an invitation-only crowd of about 200 people, mostly workers, at the plant. "But now they're coming back to life."
The White House called the grants the "single largest investment in advanced battery technology for hybrid and electric-drive vehicles ever made," and estimated that they would create tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
Jim Tankersley in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.