KERNERSVILLE, NC (AP) In the conservative heart of North Carolina, hundreds of workers at a thriving plant that puts out hydraulic excavators for the construction industry gave President Bush a warm welcome Dec. 5.
For them, the past five years have not brought job losses or an economic downturn. Some of the 650 workers at Deere-Hitachi Construction Machinery Corp. said their plant runs at full capacity — three shifts a day, seven days a week.
Since 2002, company officials said production volumes at the plant have grown five-fold, making it one of the largest producers of excavating equipment in the United States. The boom in production has allowed the workforce to increase from 300 to 1,000.
The employees made up much of the audience who cheered Bush’s broad-ranging economic stump speech in front of a pair of the enormous excavators — one a bright orange Hitachi model, the other a yellow Deere.
Bush hailed the plant — a joint venture of the Japanese firm Hitachi Ltd. and Moline, IL-based Deere & Co. since 1988 — as an example of how global trade is transforming the U.S. economy.
“This company is actually ’insourcing,’” he said, adding production formerly done at factories in Japan and Mexico.
“What better place to talk about our economy than a place where people are working hard?” Bush said to loud cheers from the audience, many clad in blue-and-white striped oxford work shirts and wearing their company name tags.
Before the speech, Mike Jones, a 12-year veteran of the plant, said he was ready to hear an upbeat message from the president.
“I’m ready to hear something positive about the economy,” said Jones, who works in facility management. “There’s been so much negative stuff” despite the fact that the plant is growing and gas prices have dropped since their post-Hurricane Katrina highs, he said.
Bush delivered such a message, repeatedly criticizing “pessimists” who argue that the United States’ best days are behind it.
“The American people have always proved the pessimists wrong,” he said as he wrapped up a 35-minute address.
Douglas Cassell who has worked at the plant for eight years, said he particularly liked Bush’s call to Congress to make permanent the tax cuts enacted in 2003. Though a Democrat, Cassell said he voted for Bush in 2004, as did many other workers interviewed.
Even one of the few plant workers who didn’t support Bush in 2004, Bobby “Coach” Knight, said he came away from the president’s appearance with newfound respect for Bush. Bush’s discussion of the need to reform the medical liability system and his advocacy of health care savings accounts made him believe the president shares his priority of making health care available to all citizens.
“After today, I was really impressed,” the welder said. “For him to come here says a lot to me, instead of some big, major company that spends a lot of money on advertising and being known.”
Kernersville is approximately 10 mi. east of Winston-Salem in a conservative congressional district formerly represented by Republican Richard Burr, who is now North Carolina’s junior senator.
Burr was on hand for the speech, as was his successor, Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, who said a tour of the Deere-Hitachi plant last spring convinced her it was an example of “how United States companies can compete successfully in the global economy.”
Foxx pointed out to the audience that Bush was the first president to visit Kernersville since George Washington stopped for breakfast in 1791.
“I hope it won’t be that long before the president comes back,” she said.
Under cold, rainy skies the state’s Democratic party staged a protest rally at a Quaker meeting house in downtown Kernersville. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who was on the Democratic ticket that challenged Bush in the 2004 election, did not attend the rally, but issued a statement criticizing his former opponent.
“The president’s words are nothing more than a politician’s attempt to help himself,” Edwards said. “Instead, he should be helping the American people. The legacy of this President is a mess in Iraq, millions of Americans falling into poverty, millions without health care, and out of control gas prices.
“We can do better.” CEG