Obama touts alt-energy in Iowa visit

BY SHAWN GUDE | APRIL 23, 2009 7:29 AM

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Speaking amid steel columns, a gentle, ever-present whirring sound, and fluorescent factory lights, President Obama implored the country to back his ambitious energy plan in a Newton wind-energy plant on Wednesday.

“The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy,” he said to a small, hand-picked crowd at the Trinity Structural Towers Inc. plant. “The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.”

The setting was no accident.

When Newton’s Maytag plant closed in 2007, the unemployment rate shot up. Luckily, the Trinity Structural Towers plant — which builds steel tower components for wind turbines — opened shortly after, partially filling the void.

In his remarks, Obama touted the plant as a paragon of the “new, clean energy economy” the country needs to usher in. Iowa trails only Texas in overall wind energy production.

Obama also announced new plans to allow offshore wind exploration, contending that if both land and offshore wind is fully utilized, wind energy could provide 20 percent of the nation’s energy by 2030. The realization of such a projection could lead to 250,000 additional jobs as well, he said.

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “It’s good for the environment; it’s great for the economy.”

Obama’s visit was a clear manifestation of the “perpetual campaign” in modern presidency, UI political-science Associate Professor David Redlawsk said.

“Presidents like to go out and talk directly to people,” Redlawsk said. “If you have particular policy preferences, you have to do it inside in Washington, and you also kind of have to get the public behind you. That’s just a part of the modern presidency.”

The energy plan Obama outlined Wednesday was multifaceted.

He called on American consumers to change inefficient energy habits — “I think the American people are ready to be part of a mission,” he said — but contended the government and private sector should play an indispensable role as well.

Attacking previous administrations, Obama also argued the country has been slow to embrace international cooperation on global warming.

“Those days are over,” he said. “We are ready to engage.”

One component of Obama’s plan is a controversial cap-and-trade program, which would essentially put a price on emitting greenhouse gases. The ultimate goal is to drive down carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, but critics charge the program would place an undue economic burden on companies and consumers.

In addition, he said while ethanol, nuclear power, and domestic oil production — which should be increased in an “environmentally sustainable way,” Obama said — are effective transition sources, “the bulk of our efforts must focus on unleashing a new, clean energy economy.”

The composition of the crowd was diametrically opposed to Obama’s 2007 Earth Day visit. During that stop, around 8,000 people packed the UI’s Pentacrest to get a glimpse of the then-presidential hopeful.

On Wednesday, state political heavyweights — Gov. Chet Culver and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were there, among others — filled the folding chairs, alongside plant employees.

“I’m tickled to death,” said Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa. “I’ve been involved in alternatives since the ’70s, and I couldn’t be more pleased that the president of the United States is absolutely committed to it.”

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, concurred.

“Any time the president of the United States comes to Iowa, it’s a great event,” Dvorsky said, noting the extra significance for Obama because of last January’s caucus win that catalyzed his campaign.

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