"Today, I'm here to act," Obama told students Wednesday… (Gerry Broome / AP )
RALEIGH, N.C. — Saying he sees a possible "breakthrough" year for the U.S. economy, President Obama touted a new manufacturing institute in this state's technology hub, an election-year attempt to show he can advance his agenda without his Republican opponents in Congress.
"Today, I'm here to act," Obama told students Wednesday at North Carolina State University, the leading partner behind the new innovation center in the Research Triangle.
The goal, he said, was "to help make Raleigh-Durham and America a magnet for the good high-tech manufacturing jobs that a growing middle class requires and that are going to continue to keep this country on the cutting edge."
The consortium, a public-private partnership involving 18 companies, will focus on developing semiconductor technology used in energy-efficient products.
The project was selected as part of a competition for federal support that Obama first announced in his State of the Union address a year ago. It will receive $70 million over five years from the Department of Energy, the White House said, a figure that will be matched by at least $70 million from businesses, universities and the state.
In his State of the Union speech this month and at other events, Obama is expected to announce initiatives to address the rising costs of college, middle-class jobs and investment in technology. The president has dubbed the effort a "year of action."
"Where I can act on my own, without Congress, I'm going to do so," Obama said Wednesday.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have responded to Obama's plans by pointing to their preferred ideas for job growth.
"He could call for true, bipartisan tax reform," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday. "He could announce construction of the Keystone pipeline, which would help create thousands of American jobs right away. And he could actually deliver on one of the brightest spots of his economic agenda: trade."
As Obama and the lawmakers traded criticism, the Senate remained locked in a debate over how to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Obama made an appeal Wednesday for Congress to act on what he said was a "vital lifeline."
"Folks aren't looking for a handout. They're not looking for special treatment," he said. "There are a lot of people who are sending out resumes every single day, but the market — the job market — is still tough in pockets around the country, and people need support, a little help, so they can look after their families while they're looking for a new job."
Obama's remarks represented the White House's attempt to point to progress on the economy while still expressing concern for those not yet feeling the affects of the recovery.
The caution is warranted by the economic data and the politics. An unexpectedly bad December jobs report threw cold water on some economists' more hopeful predictions. And the White House is mindful that many middle-class voters continue to feel bruised by the recession.
The president said he was cheered by companies bringing jobs to the U.S., evidence he said of a possible "breakthrough year."
"The pieces are all there to start bringing back more of the jobs that we've lost over the past decade," he said.
A possible manufacturing renaissance, driven by high-tech companies and skilled workers, has been a favorite topic for the president, and his push for innovation centers has been a favorite example of his ability take action on his own.
Still, the initiative also demonstrates the limit of executive power.
In announcing the idea last year, Obama called for 15 centers across the country, funded, in part, by $1 billion in federal support. Congress never approved the money, and the administration is moving forward only on three sites with previously approved funding.
The two other winning partnerships will be named in the coming weeks, the White House said.