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While "Winning the Future" for U.S. Business, Can Obama Win Too?

While "Winning the Future" for U.S. Business, Can Obama Win Too?

By Alexis Simendinger - May 23, 2011

In the nation's capital on Tuesday, the CEO of a small Ohio company that President Obama praised during a Cleveland small-business forum back in February will get the chance to meet with a handful of other entrepreneurs, plus Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the president's choice to become U.S. ambassador to Beijing, to discuss trade opportunities with China.

Before flying to Washington, Albert Green, chief executive of Kent Displays Inc., a manufacturer of flexible liquid-crystal display devices and applications, will start his week at yet another select gathering in Cleveland with Obama's special adviser for innovation-related policies. For an executive who employs 110 people at a technology company that has yet to turn a profit, the president's attention and that of his administration "is a huge thing," Green said in an interview.

Huge is right, echoed executives at Orion Energy Systems Inc., a manufacturer of efficient industrial lighting and energy management systems. Obama toured Orion's Manitowoc, Wis., plant in January. The president's visit to Wisconsin, which included stops at three companies, was part of Obama's "Winning the Future" tour, designed to herald America's efforts to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build" international competitors, while creating much-needed jobs for U.S. workers.

"Having the president make a stop at Orion let it be known that Orion was on the map," said Kevin Crawford, the company's senior vice president for government affairs and corporate communications. Founded in 1996, the company employs about 250 workers. Orion's stock price "took a jump" when Obama arrived with his White House klieg lights, Crawford added, and business has been good.

Even the self-identified "Reagan Republican" CEO of Manitowoc's Skana Aluminum Co. was happy to spend 22 minutes (he counted) showing the president around the manufacturing operation he and a few partners rescued in 2010 from a company that had gone belly up. Their investment put 85 semi-skilled workers back to work at about $20 an hour and cleaned up a broken-down plant that had become an eyesore. Skana's customers quickly got the word that Obama stopped by.

"It didn't hurt to have the president of the United States walking through and giving us some publicity," said Skana chief executive Thomas Testwuide, a 65-year-old tea party sympathizer. "It was nice to have him visit, but I'd rather have him change his policies. He has no knowledge of how a business starts up, he added. "And he's all hot on windmills, which is foolishness."

Interviews with executives at companies Obama and his entourage toured and touted in the last six months underscored the public relations and business bonanzas that presidential endorsements can deliver, especially to small companies. What is less clear is whether the voters in communities and states Obama has crowned as innovators will return his admiration when November 2012 rolls around.

A president who had zero executive experience when he came to office; who hammered health insurers, then demonized big banks before reluctantly throwing taxpayer-funded flotation devices to automakers has struggled to find the sweet spot between those who do the hiring and those who desperately want to be hired.

At a tipping point in the economy and in national politics, Obama is playing catch-up, casting himself as a futurist joining American innovators who want to put people to work; as an advocate for a labor force that believes it is worse off than before Obama was elected; and as a shield against Republican policies he believes are wrong for the country. Selling American ingenuity town by town may not be enough to win an election, but it's an idea that nearly everyone Obama meets sorely wants to buy.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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