STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- President Barack Obama challenged students and businesses to "out-innovate the rest of the world" Thursday as he described a package of initiatives designed to promote energy efficiency in buildings and homes across the country.
On a visit aimed at spurring research, business investment and his own political prospects, the president surveyed campus laboratories pursuing energy research before delivering a 20-minute speech outlining a series of tax and regulatory changes with a collective goal of achieving a 20 percent reduction in energy use in commercial structures by the year 2020.
The president spoke on a stage with a blue backdrop emblazoned "Win the Future," the signature phrase of his State of the Union address last month. And his message Thursday was a call to implement one of the central themes of the address, the need to pursue cutting-edge research with a focus on jobs and efficiency.
Among the steps in the proposal that Mr. Obama described is a change in current tax breaks for energy upgrades in commercial buildings to replace an existing tax deduction for energy upgrades with a more generous tax credit.
His plan, through the Small Business Administration, also will seek regulatory changes to make it easier for smaller firms to invest in energy upgrades. To spur complementary action by cash-strapped state and local governments, Mr. Obama called on their officials to compete for grants for governments that can demonstrate progress in streamlining regulations such a building codes in order to make it easier for the private sector to pursue the energy agenda.
Mr. Obama also embraced a previously announced initiative in which Penn State researchers are coordinating the development of an energy research campus at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. That research hub is one of three in the country, along with California Institute of Technology and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
This was Mr. Obama's first visit to Penn State since he was cheered at a massive sunlit rally as he campaigned in the Pennsylvania primary in 2008. The rhetoric of the two events offered a vivid example of Mario Cuomo's famous observation that politicians campaign with poetry but govern with prose.
Mr. Obama's speech Thursday reached for some inspirational notes, but its preoccupation with tax credits and energy efficiency metrics offered a sober contrast to the lofty themes that stirred many more thousands of students to loud applause in the outdoor rally in 2008.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the prosaic, however significant, focus of his remarks.
"Today, you are preparing to lead the way on a hub that will make America the home to the most energy-efficient buildings in the world. Now, that may not sound too sexy," he said, as the crowd laughed in apparent assent. "But, listen, our homes and our businesses consume 40 percent of the energy we use. Now think about that."
In a conference call with reporters before the speech, administration officials said the enhanced financial incentives to the private sector would be budget neutral, paid for with cuts in existing tax breaks to energy companies. They said the details of the cost would be spelled out in the president's pending budget proposal.
The local congressman, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Centre County, was in the audience to greet the president. Afterward, he said that he welcomed his emphasis on energy research but he questioned the State of the Union speech's call, repeated Thursday, for an end to tax breaks for oil companies. Mr. Thompson said that while oil companies may be an attractive political target, he doubted that a change in their tax treatment would produce the revenue gains suggested by the administration.
In the face of stubbornly high unemployment, the president's Penn State appearance was one of a series of recent stops designed to showcase administration concerns on the economy and job creation. In recent weeks, he has made similar business-focused stops in New York, North Carolina as well as the two Super Bowl states of Wisconsin and now, Pennsylvania. He noted that he'd visited a town near Green Bay last week and said, "In the spirit of fairness I've come to Penn State, not too far from the center of Steelers Nation."
The fan-in-chief displayed his knowledge of sports geography as he added that, "I also understand this state splits up a little bit, so I know there are some Eagles fans [here]," an observation that drew loud cheers from the crowd. And, of course, no political visit to Happy Valley would be complete without one more pigskin reference.
"I met this guy, I hadn't heard of him before. But, apparently he coaches your football team: Joe Paterno," the president said, predictably drawing one of the louder cheers of the day.
Mr. Obama entered the Rec Hall gym after a tour of university laboratories with Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
One stop was an engineering lab, where he wore goggles as he viewed the operation.
"My fifth-grade science experiment looked just this," Mr. Obama joked to the pool of reporters who accompanied him as he viewed an indoor environmental laboratory.
The president also chatted with the students demonstrating various projects, including transparent wall systems that can cut energy use.
"Keep up the good work," he told one Penn State student.
Politics Editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published February 4, 2011 5:00 AM