PRINCETON, Ind. — President Barack Obama, who used northern Indiana RV manufacturers as a rallying point during the Great Recession, returned to the state Friday for the first time in three years to tout the role of manufacturing in the nation's economic recovery.
Obama toured Millennium Steel in Princeton before making a broad pitch for his economic policies, including a call for better wages and an increase in the federal minimum wage to a crowd of about 150.
He won the most applause Friday talking about income disparity and his push for an increase in the minimum wage. After talking about his signature health care law, Obama was met with only modest applause.
The president used the rebound of American manufacturing in the past few years to launch into his pitch.
"Manufacturing jobs have good pay and good benefits, and they create a ripple effect through the whole economy," he said.
"It means you can afford to make your mortgage payments, buy a new car yourself, buy some new appliances, and you get a virtuous cycle in which all businesses are doing better," Obama continued.
Despite its status as a Republican-leaning state, Indiana was a sound backdrop for Obama's manufacturing pitch. The sector accounts for 16.8 percent of the state's employment and 28.2 percent of the state's output, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The strong manufacturing base has also driven improvements in the state's unemployment rate.
Unlike northern Indiana, which saw unemployment rates as high as 19 percent in 2009 as the recreational vehicle industry collapsed, southwestern Indiana's manufacturing industry has weathered the downturn much better despite the departure of major employers such as Whirlpool.
Much of the credit for that goes to Toyota, which opened a plant in the late 1990s that has attracted numerous suppliers such as Millennium Steel.
Matt Robbins, 37, a Princeton native and owner of RPM Tool, which builds machines for supply lines at automakers and other companies, said Toyota has been a major benefit to the area. The manufacturing economy is so strong there , he said, that the area was largely untouched by the recession.
"You should be able to find a job, no problem, here," Robbins said.
But many manufacturers have said they're struggling to find qualified workers.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence and other state leaders have spent much of the past two years focused on overhauling how the state's high schools and college train students to enter the workforce. Much of the focus has turned to moderate-skill jobs, which have changed immensely in the past decade or so with improvements in technology.
Obama said many people gave up on the idea of working in manufacturing as plants closed and jobs shifted overseas.
He said more young people need to be made aware of the opportunities in the sector and said it's important to reach out to them as early as high school.
"Not everybody wants to sit behind a desk pushing paper all day long," he said.
Pence met Obama at the Evansville airport and spoke with Obama for about five minutes on the tarmac about his Healthy Indiana 2.0 plan, which he wants to use instead of a traditional Medicaid expansion.
Pence said in a statement that the two "talked through a number of issues that have arisen in the course of our discussions."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama expressed "the administration's willingness to work with state officials in Indiana to expand Medicaid" and noted that thousands of Indiana residents could benefit.
Obama talked with the Millennium crowd for more than an hour, taking questions in a townhall-style event.
Randy Perry, 56, owner of Appalachian Regional Manufacturing in eastern Kentucky, asked Obama how small businesses could raise the minimum wage, and later he told The Associated Press that it needs to be done without harming businesses.
"I want the minimum wage raised, I want to be able to pay my people more. But how do I do that?" he said.
Perry, who travelled three hours with his family from Kentucky for the event, suggested that one option might be using money spent on public assistance to instead supplement wages, which he said would get people working and for decent wages.