JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – President Barack Obama spoke for nearly 30 minutes Thursday afternoon at JaxPort, urging folks back in Washington to stop their political bickering and get the economy back on track.
"That's why I came down to Jacksonville today. I want you involved in this debate and remind Washington what's at stake," he told several hundred gathered at the port. "I'm going to welcome ideas from anybody across the political spectrum."
In Obama's third speech on the economy in three days, Obama said the House GOP wants to cut spending on education, science and clean energy when the country should be investing in those sectors.
He says cutting back in those areas would be like waving a "white flag of surrender" in a global economy.
"If we have more supertankers coming here, that means more jobs at the terminal," he told those gathered at the port. "That means more warehouses in the surrounding area. That means more contractors are getting jobs setting up those warehouses. That means they got more money to spend at the restaurant. That means the waitress has more money to spend to buy her iPod. It starts working for everybody."
President's 2 hours in Jacksonville
Air Force One touched down at Jacksonville International Airport at 1:41 p.m. with President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown greeted them at the bottom of the stairs before they loaded into a motorcade for JaxPort.
Obama's motorcade arrived at 2:14 p.m. at the Jacksonville Port Authority dock. The president walked a few hundred yards to a shaded spot beneath an enormous crane. Cargo containers lined the area, presumably to block anyone's view, and spotters were high atop the crane.
Obama shucked his suit jacket for a walk with Transportation Sect Anthony Foxx; Roy Schleicher, CEO of the Jacksonville Port Authority; Dennis Kelly, regional vice president and general manager of TraPac, whose logo is on the crane; and Fred Wakefield, representative for the International Longshoreman's Association.
They chatted for several minutes, then walked back toward the cameras, framed by the crane and beyond that, the Dames Point Bridge.
The president then began making remarks about what the nation can do to invest in the middle class. He believes that's the only way to strengthen the economy, and he vowed that would be his focus for his remaining 1,266 days in office.
Wearing a white dress shirt and blue tie, sleeves rolled to just below the elbow due to the heat inside the cruise terminal, Obama began his speech by saying what's going on at JaxPort is a reminder of the potential for growth all around the country.
He said that two years from now, the Panama Canal will be able to handle supertankers, which are the future of shipping around the world.
Obama said he wants to make sure that Jacksonville is among American ports that can handle the supertankers, which in turn will create more jobs and have a trickle down effect on the local economy.
"We've got to create more jobs today doing what you are doing right here at JaxPort, and that's building this country's future," he said. "We need modern schools for our kids. We need modern power grids and fuel networks that can withstand stronger storms, and we need modern ports so we can move more goods made in America out to the rest of the world."
JaxPort Board Chairman Joe York provided this response to President Obama's remarks:
"It's gratifying to have President Obama choose JaxPort as a backdrop to talk about moving our economy forward as that is the core mission of our agency. Fifty years ago, Florida created the authority to maximize the economic opportunities that our public port facilities provide for the people of north Florida.
"Boosting job creation, business, revenue, quality of life: the president is speaking our language -- it's what the men and women of the port and our partners do each and every day. Clearly, the president's recognition that investment in the nation's ports will return benefits for generations to come echoes our message and our goal of supporting long-term economic vitality for our region, state and nation."
Local leaders know the importance of the port, a major economic engine for the area.
"I know everyone is going to try to meet with him and talk to him about the need to fix Mile Point, talk about the importance the value of our port," said Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown. "I'm excited about making sure (he knows) how important it is. He already knows that, but just being here says that JaxPort is important."
The Mile Point project and deepening the shipping channel in the St. Johns River are ongoing efforts to demolish an underwater wall and open up the shipping channel. Port officials and labor leaders agree.
"In the last few years, we have certainly seen the conversation about port investment rise in priority as people start to understand that our ports are the foundation of our economy. The movement of goods to our consumers, the movement of goods from our manufacturers to the rest of the world that is critically important to our economic health," said Nancy Rubin, JaxPort spokeswoman.
The head of the local longshoreman's union says more port business directly translates to more jobs.
"Right now we have about 1,500 members. Only about 600 of those members have a good living as a longshoreman so if we have more jobs here more people that can make a decent living here," said Keith Hopkins, who's been a longshoreman for 25 years.
The project that would allow bigger and more ships to come here is in the hands of Congress. In January, Gov. Rick Scott approved $38 million for the project, but it's tied up at the federal level. President Obama has the ability to speed it up.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio supports efforts to fund port improvements.
"I think everyone supports the dredging project. The two impediments have been money and authorization. Because of a quirk in the federal law that even though the state is spending that money, the federal government had to authorize them to spend that money. And that will be cleared up in the federal version of the bill," said Rubio.