WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina -- President Barack Obama couldn't escape the East Coast cold snap on his short trip south on Monday. ("What's snow doing on the ground in North Carolina?" he jokingly asked.) But his warm welcome at Forsyth Technical Community College
was far different than the cold shoulder he's been getting from Republicans in Congress.
The president came to a state whose economy has been transformed by the departure of the textile and furniture industries that once provided reliable employment for high school graduates. And he came to Forsyth to celebrate the 50th
anniversary of a college that has expanded its programs to train students in the growing biotechnology field.
Obama referred to America's 1957 wake-up call to catch up to the Soviet Union in the space race by investing in math and science education, and called for a "Sputnik moment" for this generation. "If the recession has taught us anything, it's that we cannot go back to an economy that's driven by too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans, paper profits that are built on financial speculation," the president said. "We've got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth."
He spoke to an audience of about 350 students, faculty, local business leaders and elected officials, including Gov. Bev Perdue and Sen. Kay Hagan (both Democrats), Republican Sen. Richard Burr and the candidate Burr defeated in November, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.
"There are bigger issues at stake for our country than politics," he said to applause. "And these issues call on us to respond not as partisans, but as Americans."
Before the speech, Obama toured two biotech classes. Forsyth's president, Gary Green, told me that the president spoke with the students about their work and the challenges they faced. "It's easy to know the state and easy to know the facts," Green said. It was even more valuable for the students to interact with the president and for him to hear stories of their money struggles or how some had been laid off, he said.
Green, who invited the president to visit about six months ago, said, "Community colleges – this community college in particular – are where Americans are going to look for opportunity in this economy." Forsyth is now the largest biotechnology training program in North Carolina, and works with industry leaders, including such research-based institutions as the nearby Wake Forest School of Medicine. It offers about 190 credit programs, from interior design to race-car technology.
"We in North Carolina have a 1 percent growth in biotech," Green said. The president's visit provides recognition and support for programs that prepare Americans to work in an economy that's driven by innovation, research and knowledge, he said.
In his speech, the president touted the assistance that Forsyth had received from stimulus money, which Green estimated to be about $1.2 million through the state, nonprofit partners and others. What "we've done over the last couple of years that people were questioning," Obama said, "you can see it translated in the classrooms right here. The work that we're doing on student loans and Pell Grants, you can see it in the students who are able to finance their retraining right here.
"So we can't stop making those investments. The best antidote to a growing deficit ... is a growing economy. To borrow an analogy, cutting the deficit by cutting investments in areas like education, areas like innovation -- that's like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine. It's not a good idea."
Thomas Guastaferro, 26, a full-time student with a part-time job as a lab technician at Forsyth was covering Obama's visit. As editor of the school newspaper, Technically Speaking, he was technically neutral politically. But he hoped the president's visit would bring the school and its innovative programs recognition and credibility.
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