President Obama and Karen Mills of the Small Business Administration speak… (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Cleveland and Washington — President Obama took his vision for America's economic recovery to Cleveland on Tuesday, with a battery of Cabinet members and advisors in tow for what he billed as a "listening" event with small-business leaders.
But the small-business forum provided Obama with the chance to promote his economic views to a high-value audience that could help decide his reelection.
Government should invest in education and research, Obama said, with the intent of helping American small business expand into globally competitive industries.
"When it comes to our economy, it's the small businesses that pack the biggest punch," Obama told a crowd of more than a hundred entrepreneurs gathered at Cleveland State University. "Small businesses create 2 out of every 3 new jobs.... So we're here to gain your counsel — to talk about how America can help you succeed."
As in recent days, Obama's efforts to get his message across to the public were hampered by fast-moving events in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. His remarks about small business were not carried live by Fox News or CNN, and were shown only in part by MSNBC.
He offered no remarks on the unrest and violence in Libya or the Middle East. And though he criticized the Wisconsin governor for trying to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, he did not address a similar push by the Ohio Legislature — even though a large pro-union rally was planned at the state Capitol later Tuesday.
For the moment, though, the president's message discipline appeared to serve his purpose. As business owners left the campus, they gave Obama's policies mixed reviews, but many credited him for soliciting their concerns and ideas for improvement.
"He's doing the right thing by talking to us," said John Grabner, founder of Cardinal Fastener & Specialty Co. in nearby Bedford Heights. "The fact that he's talking to the business community tells me he is focused on the right things."
The White House was clearly intent on building relationships with entrepreneurs. In addition to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Obama brought four other Cabinet members and several senior advisors and appointees in his entourage.
They stayed for three hours, each sitting in on a working session with a simple agenda: Business leaders pointed out problems, and they wrote them down.
In the coming months, the White House plans to do eight more such road shows, which aides say will focus on a diverse array of audiences and regions.
"The president wants to hear from the businesses that are doing things well," said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Obama.
"These are the kinds of things he might not hear in the bubble" that surrounds him in the White House, she said.
While Obama is seeking counsel, he is also doing some public relations work on behalf of his economic plans, including the budget he just unveiled. Local press from around Ohio — a crucial swing state that will help decide the 2012 presidential election — covered the sessions and the president's remarks. White House senior advisors did a tour of the television cameras while the president was attending the sessions.
Cleveland was the perfect place to start this enterprise, White House aides say. The city has been hammered by the decline of its industrial base, and is attempting to reinvent itself through high-end manufacturing and an increasingly vibrant healthcare sector.
Obama says such changes are necessary and that the government should invest in them. His new budget proposes increased spending in education and research benefiting the industries he thinks will be competitive in the future.
Republicans disagree, and the two sides are entering a full-fledged debate over the question in the form of federal budget talks. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) offered indirect commentary on the president's investment message.
"Republicans' goal is to cut spending and reduce the size of government, not to shut it down," Boehner said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "and the Democrats who run Washington should stop creating more uncertainty by spreading fears of a government shutdown and start telling the American people what, if anything, they are willing to cut," Boehner added.
Speaking in Cleveland, Obama said he wanted to work with lawmakers in both parties to "make even bigger dents in our deficits," to find new savings and cut spending wherever he can find it.
"At the same time, we can't sacrifice investments in our future," Obama said, pointing to his last working session for anecdotal evidence.
One young man in the session, a student majoring in the sciences, said his professors were having trouble getting grants because research and development budgets had been declining relative to the economy as a whole.
"We've decided we've got to increase that back up," Obama said. "And that's part of our budget — investing in innovation."