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Obama's stimulus message falls on skeptical ears at Caterpillar plant

Word of layoffs and of Republican Judd Gregg's withdrawal as Commerce secretary dampen spirits at the rally in East Peoria, Illinois. The president says he's confident the plan will restore jobs.

February 13, 2009|Christi Parsons

EAST PEORIA, ILL. — President Obama preached a message of hope about the economy here Thursday, praising employees gathered in a Caterpillar plant for soldiering through tough times, and he promised that help is on the way.

But the audience was dotted with dispirited workers who had just gotten word of 20,000 layoffs coming at the heavy-equipment giant, and though community leaders and managers cheered Obama's words, others in the crowd were in no mood to join in.

"It really doesn't mean anything," plant employee John Melaga said as a jubilant march blared from the loudspeakers. The company will "do whatever it takes to survive, but it might mean laying off half the workforce."

Whatever political challenges Obama faces in Washington as he tries to shepherd his economic recovery plan to passage this week, the hardest people to win over in the weeks and months to come may be on the plant floors and assembly lines and in the office buildings around the country.

Obama offered his best case for optimism, promising that the largesse of the recovery plan ready for congressional approval will help companies such as Caterpillar weather the recession. Congress is moving toward passage this weekend.

"When they finally pass our plan, I believe it will be a major step forward," the president said. "I'm not the only one who thinks so," he said, pointing out Caterpillar Inc. Chief Executive Jim Owens in the crowd.

Obama said Owens told him that once the money starts flowing, "this company will be able to rehire some of the folks who were just laid off."

"That's a story I'm confident will be repeated across the country," the president said.

After the event, however, the Associated Press reported that Owens said he didn't expect quick improvement. "The reality is we'll probably have to have more layoffs before we can start hiring again," he said.

Obama also pointed out Rep. Aaron Schock, the area's freshman Republican representative, who accompanied him on Air Force One. Schock is skeptical of the plan, as are most House Republicans.

Obama jokingly urged members of the crowd to follow in the mold of Ray LaHood, Schock's predecessor in Congress and now Transportation secretary. LaHood is one of the few Republicans in Obama's Cabinet, and that number won't be growing any time soon, given New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg's withdrawal Thursday as Commerce secretary nominee.

The president lauded the "common-sense, Midwestern, can-do bipartisan attitude that Ray represents," an oddly timed note coming as word was spreading that Gregg was bowing out because he couldn't overcome differences with the Democratic administration.

In any case, Republicans say it isn't just partisanship that prevents them from supporting the president's strategy. As Obama talks about stimulating the economy, Republican critics think he is sidestepping crucial issues of trade.

"It should completely eclipse the entire national conversation we're having about stimulus," said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.).

House Republicans cite the U.S. free-trade agreement with Colombia, with its provisions on hold pending review in Congress. Caterpillar says it pays $100,000 in tariffs on each piece of heavy equipment it exports to the country.

"That's the irony of the White House choosing to go to Caterpillar," Roskam said.

In East Peoria, though, Melaga and his friends weren't talking about trade policy.

"People have gotten their notices," Melaga said. "They're losing their jobs. That's what is starting to hit home here."

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cparsons@tribune.com

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