President Obama toured the American Cord and Webbing factory in Woonsocket, R.I. Monday, praising workers on their ability to "buckle down" and persevere through rough economic times.
The factory makes, among other things, buckles.
"It's small businesses like this one that are the bricks and blocks — the cord and webbing if you will — of our economy," Obama said. "Across the country, the small businesses that were once the cornerstones of their communities are now empty storefronts that haunt our communities."
His short speech — just over 10 minutes — emphasized the administration's recent efforts to encourage job growth through small businesses.
Last month, Obama signed into law the Small Business Jobs Act, extending loans to small business owners and accelerating a chain of tax cuts. The law is a final effort to stimulate the economy before next week's midterm elections.
"The government can't guarantee your success," he said to the workers. "But government can knock down some of the barriers that stand in the way of small businesses."
Although optimistic about new tax cuts and lending options for small businesses, Obama said he is frustrated by the level of partisanship in Congress.
"I hope that my friends on the other side of the aisle are going to change their values going forward," he said. "You can't just focus on the next election, you have to focus on the next generation."
Obama decided earlier in the day not to endorse a candidate in the Rhode Island governor's race. His decision, based on respect for his "friend" Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 angered Democratic candidate Frank Caprio, according to a Providence Journal blog post. Former U.S. Senator Chafee is an independent candidate for governor.
Obama "can take his endorsement and really shove it as far as I'm concerned," Caprio said in a radio interview Monday morning.
But later that afternoon, at the Cord and Webbing factory, Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine said he could only take the rift between Obama and Caprio "for what it's worth." Caprio did not attend the event.
The president's visit was "great news" for Woonsocket, Fontaine said. "Manufacturing is a dying trade many places," he said, and localities have limited resources to aid small business. States often respond to financial strain by cutting funding to cities and towns. Property taxes remain one of the few revenue sources available to localities like Woonsocket. But raising property taxes function to push out small business, he said.
Woonsocket recently extended a tax stabilization program to American Cord and Webbing as part of a job creation initiative. Tax incentives will allow the factory to expand and hire new workers.
Workers presented Obama with a customized collar for Bo, the first family's dog.
Jeanne Gudz, who has worked in the sewing department at the factory for 18 years, beamed after receiving a hug and a kiss from the president. "There's been a lot of changes because of the economy," she said. "We've been very fortunate. They've been running things the right way."
As for Obama, "He's doing the best he can," she said. "He's gonna help the little people, and that's what counts."
Keeping jobs in the United States has been the biggest challenge facing American manufacturing, said Dennis Smith, national sales manager at American Cord and Webbing.
Facing declining sales, the factory laid off workers in early 2009. Though Gladys Asencio did not lose her job as part of the layoffs, her shifts were cut to four days a week. "We worried," she said. "Especially those that were out five days a week." But all workers were rehired this year.
Asencio said she would remember Obama's visit for the rest of her life. "I woke up, I washed up, I got dressed," she said. "But it's a different day."
"When I tour places like this, it makes me optimistic," Obama said in his closing remarks. "We've got big problems, it's going to take a long time to solve. ... But we are going to get out."
More than 100 protestors greeted the president upon his arrival in Providence earlier that afternoon, according to the Providence Journal. He spoke at the Rhode Island Convention Center following his visit to Woonsocket.
Obama drove through Brown's campus around 6:30 p.m. on his way to an elaborate jack-o-lantern-themed fundraiser on the East Side. Students crowded the intersection of Thayer and Waterman streets, yelling and waving as the motorcade whizzed past.
Susan Restrepo '11 said she did not even know Obama was in the state. She received a text from her golf coach directing her and team members to Waterman Street. "We didn't really see him," she said. "But I think it's neat that he's in Providence supporting his agenda and the Democrats running for office."
Six-hundred pounds of pumpkin greeted the president and guests at the dinner, priced at $7,500 a plate. The largest jack-o-lantern weighed in at 200 pounds and featured Obama's face, with the Lincoln Memorial in the background, according to an Oct. 25 Providence Journal article. But his likeness was not enough to convince the president to stay for dinner. Obama left after a brief address.