The future—and the people and things that will build it—loomed large during President Barack Obama’s two public speeches in Austin on Thursday on the first leg of his “Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity” tour.
After meeting Governor Rick Perry on the tarmac, the president kicked off his second trip to the state in as many weeks with a visit to Manor New Technology High School, a small math- and science-oriented public school northeast of Austin that specializes in “project-based” learning. There, in the small high school gymnasium, Obama delivered his remarks as a diverse group of students, perched on bleachers in front of a requisite outsized American flag, smiled in the background.
An even more elaborate scene was set for Obama’s second and final public speech of the day at Applied Materials, a sprawling tech manufacturing facility just down the road from the high school: the presidential podium was placed in front of hulking blue-and-black equipment used to manufacture semiconductors.
The president’s message at both venues was the same: America needs to create innovative, high tech jobs and provide children with a rigorous, forward-looking education to fill them. The trip represented his attempt to shift the conversation back to jobs and the economy after a rocky few months regarding his priorities in Washington (think gun control and the sequester.)
The president’s choice of Austin to kick off his tour further hammered home what countless Forbes lists (and Texas officials) have said: Austin—and Texas—is leading the country in growth. “I chose Austin partly because I just love Austin,” Obama told the group of high school students, teachers, and local officials. “But also because there are some terrific things going on in this area.” Businesses created 85,000 new jobs in the city since 2010, Obama noted. And not just any jobs—tech jobs, and other kinds that pay the sorts of wages that can support a middle class family. Or, in other words, “help people who are working hard achieve a decent living.”
“All of us have to rally around the single-greatest challenge that we face as a country right now, and that’s reigniting the true engine of economic growth, a rising, thriving middle class, where if you work hard—no matter what you look like, where you come from—you can succeed,” Obama said.
Wearing a navy suit and cheerful blue tie, Obama trumpeted the school’s successes. “The majority of students at Manor don’t come from wealth or privilege. Some folks here might have come from some pretty tough backgrounds. And yet, the vast majority of students here stay in school and they graduate,” Obama said. “You should be proud of that.”
But more than anything Obama could say, his very presence on the campus was itself the ultimate nod for the six-year-old, 330-student high school, which has already won its fair share of accolades. Manor New Tech’s test scores are above the state average, and in 2011, 97 percent of its graduates were accepted to college. Statistics in this vein led U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to name the school “a model for reaching underserved youth” in 2010. (But prior to the president’s arrival, the students proved they still have pretty of regular teenager in them as they milled about the gymnasium taking selfies with iPhones, holding hands, and singing along to the curious mix of music—Pink and Lifehouse—that blared from the speakers.)
After mingling with the crowd for a few minutes, Obama made two unannounced stops downtown, including a visit to Austin Capital, a co-working space and start-up incubator in the Omni hotel, and to Stubb’s BBQ for lunch—a choice that was met with some derision on Twitter—where he ordered, according to the Austin American Statesman, a quarter-pound of brisket, two pork spare ribs, cornbread, pickles, onions, and peppers. And the restaurant is considering naming this order the “presidential special.”(It wouldn’t be the first plate in town named after a president’s order: during a 1995 meal at Guero’s, President Bill Clinton ordered breast of chicken taco, one beef taco, one tamale and guacamole. That order was immortalized on the Mexican joint’s menu as the El Presidente, along with the tag line “He ate all of his.”)
Obama’s motorcade then shuttled him through a stretch of U.S. Highway 290 that is one long construction zone peppered with orange barrels, a visible reminder, if one was necessary, that Austin’s growth won’t be sustainable without transportation and other infrastructure improvements.
Applied Materials, housed in a 1.9 million-square foot corporate campus off U.S. Highway 290, was founded in Silicon Valley in 1967. In its first years, the company “made up with ingenuity and imagination and risk-taking” for what it lacked in size, the president said, and ultimately opened its manufacturing facility in Austin in 1992. Applied Materials and other Austin firms, Obama said, have “good models for the rest of America to follow.” Lines in that vein were met with hearty applause from the hundreds of employees packed into the room, which gave the event the feel of a large company retreat.
“Now, if we want to manufacture the best products, we’ve also got to invest in and cultivate the best ideas. Innovation, ingenuity—that’s the constant of the American economy,” he said. In the interest of fostering that kind of ingenuity, Obama said on Thursday that he signed an executive order to launch a competition to create three new “manufacturing innovation institutes” in the country.
The trip was billed as an economic, not a political one, and, during his public appearances the words “Battleground Texas” did not escape Obama’s lips—though he did name check San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro in his speech.
The president did his best to strike a bipartisan tone, such as when he discussed the imperative of government helping to fund basic research, an area the private sector lags in.
“There are some key things that we can do that shouldn’t be ideological. They’re not Democratic ideas or Republican ideas or independent ideas. They’re just good ideas that allow the government to help create the foundation, the platform, the environment in which companies like Applied Materials can thrive,” he said.
While Obama also never said the words “Texas Miracle,” he noted that the state, and particularly Austin, had lessons for the rest of the country. “The best ideas usually don’t start in Washington,” he said. “They trickle up to Washington.”