Not that it would be easy. Global, decades-long forces haven take a massive toll on American manufacturing, and there are few signs they will abate. And the nation’s strained finances – and paralyzed politics -- limit what government can do to help.
The president’s embrace of manufacturing comes during a campaign in which his rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has also pledged to rebuild the sector. Obama’s strategists see political gain in the relentless focus on manufacturing, drawing a contrast with Romney’s background as someone who financially invested in industrial companies but never ran one, and his criticism of the auto bailout.
But Obama has his own vulnerabilities. Romney and Republicans say there is already an example of Obama’s manufacturing policy at work — the “green jobs” program that benefited political donors and lobbyists, such as the backers of the failed solar energy company Solyndra.
A long slide
Manufacturing, long a source of high wage jobs, has been shrinking as a portion of the economy for 45 years, from representing more than a quarter of economic activity to just 12 percent today, a decline that helps explain the nation’s anxiety about the future of the middle class.
The slide is the result of many factors, including dwindling union membership and automated factory technology, but largely reflects the rise of low-wage jobs overseas. In the past decade, fueled in large part by open trade with China, factories have shed millions of jobs.
The policies of presidents of both parties have over the years been shaped by the widely held view among economists that manufacturing’s decline — like agriculture before it — was inevitable and even beneficial for American consumers, who snapped up inexpensive products made overseas.
As someone who began his career organizing jobless factory workers, Obama came to office with a view that more should be done to protect these communities, but he wasn’t sure exactly what was possible. “I cannot wish away the sometimes competing demands of economic security and competitiveness,” he wrote as a senator.
Faced with an economic crisis, he deployed federal stimulus money to jolt a domestic clean energy industry to life. And months later, Obama pumped tens of billions of dollars into General Motors and Chrysler to save them.
His economic advisers were not always fully comfortable with these actions, which involved a profound government intervention in the private market, but agreed that clean energy had broad benefits to society and the collapse of America’s auto industry in the midst of a deep recession would have been catastrophic.