MOUNT HOLLY, N.C. — President Barack Obama is calling for incentives to develop more fuel-efficient cars, emphasizing a top energy initiative amid rising gasoline prices and a re-election battle. He spoke at a Freightliner truck plant in North Carolina, a state that figures prominently in the presidential election.
Gasoline prices are at their highest levels for this time of year, and Obama has been traveling to promote energy proposals he says will reduce dependency on foreign oil over the long term.
"As we start using less, that lowers the demand. Prices come down," he said.
Obama praised Freightliner, a division of Germany's Daimler Trucks North America, as being a leader in building fuel efficient large trucks.
"You're not just building trucks, you're building better trucks, trucks that use less oil," he said, noting that the company last year sold its 1,000th natural gas-powered truck.
Obama is proposing a $1 billion incentive to challenge local communities to encourage greater fuel-efficient technologies, such as more charging stations for electric vehicles.
Obama also is touting greater tax incentives to encourage the purchase and use of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
While long-haul trucks represent only 4 percent of the vehicles in America, they are responsible for almost 20 percent of the country's fuel consumption, currently consuming more than 30 billion gallons of gasoline a year.
Obama said switching to energy-efficient trucks could save long-haul truckers more than $15,000 a year in fuel costs.
"Think about what it means to businesses. Think about what it means to consumers," he said.
Growing demand has prompted Freightliner to hire more workers to build trucks. Last year, the company said it would bring back 447 manufacturing jobs and 27 administrative positions in Mount Holly.
Freightliner announced in February it would hire 1,100 more workers at its Rowan County factory in Cleveland and another 100 at a nearby Gastonia parts plant.
At one time, the Freightliner plant in Cleveland employed nearly 4,000 workers, said Corey Hill, president of United Auto Workers Local 3520. Now, it has about 1,600, with more callbacks on the way, he said.
The local economy also has been hit hard by the recession. Unemployment in Gaston and Rowan counties was higher than the state average of 9.9 percent in December — the last month when figures were available.
Some Freightliner workers make $24 an hour with benefits.
Daimler employee Brent Marr said he was laid off for three months. When he came back, the company was building eight trucks a day. That number has risen.
"About 110, 120 trucks a day is what we're turning out right now," he said.
David Petrie, 44, of Gastonia, has worked at Freightliner for 19 years. He was laid off three times during that period – 10 months in 1996, three years from 2001 to 2004, and he just returned to work in May after being laid off in early 2008.
"There have been a lot of ups and downs. It's been a roller-coaster. But this is a great place," said Petrie, the father of four children between the ages of 12 to 21. His wife doesn't work, and that made it hard when the former Air Force veteran was laid off.
"We had to cut back on everything. We just had to buy the basics. We got by by the grace of God," Petrie said. "There were hard times."
But he said he's optimistic about the uptick in the economy and attended Wednesday's event because he wanted to show his support for the president. He also praised the president's emphasis on promoting fuel-efficient vehicles, something that could lead to job security.
"He's done more for working people than any president I can remember," Petrie said.
He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts.
"You know how you can tell the economy is coming back? Look at your highways. If all you see are passenger cars, that's not good. But if you see a lot of big trucks like the kind we build here at Freightliner, you know the economy is coming back," he said.
North Carolina is likely to be a key battleground state in the presidential election, and the Obama administration has stepped up its presence here lately.
Obama's trip comes less than a week after first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited. The president visited Fort Bragg in December and, before that, came to the state in October.
Obama still has ground to make up with North Carolina voters, according to an Elon University poll released this week. The survey found more than half of the 605 state residents polled said they disapproved of the president's job performance and his handling of the economy. But the poll found some improvement in views about Obama's economic management. Forty-three percent expressed approval, up from 37 percent in September, the poll found.
"With North Carolina continuing to have higher than average state unemployment, his electoral future in the Tar Heel state is anything but certain," said Mileah Kromer, the poll's assistant director.
The Democratic National Convention will be held in Charlotte in early September. Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008, the slimmest margin of all the states he carried. He was the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to carry the state.