EAST LANSING, Mich. – Keen to not let a rare legislative accomplishment go unnoticed, President Obama jetted to an agricultural research hub in Michigan on Friday to sign into law a long-delayed farm bill and tout the importance of rural America to the economy.
In his brief trip to Michigan State University, Obama cited the bill as a victory for his economic agenda and a hopeful sign that he could "break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven, partisan decision-making." His message, however, was undermined by the release of a weak jobs report as he left for the state Friday morning, as well as the decision by Republican lawmakers to snub the president. Though some were invited to attend the unusual destination signing ceremony, according to the White House, none did.
The nearly $1-trillion bill, which had been logjammed for years in a divided Congress, passed this week. The Agricultural Act of 2014 will set policy for the next five years on crop subsidies, nutrition programs, conservation and food stamps. It also includes policies on cockfighting and biofuels, climate change and farmer's markets.
In his remarks at the university's equine performance center, Obama described the legislation as an economic, environmental and agricultural bill rolled into one.
"It's like a Swiss Army knife. It's like a Mike Trout," the president said, referring to the Angels center fielder who is known as a five-tool player for his versatile skills. "It multi-tasks. It's creating more good jobs, gives more Americans a shot at opportunity."
As with most efforts in Washington, the bill had become tangled in the debate over government spending. The final product was a compromise between Republican deficit hawks and Democrats seeking to protect safety-net programs. It cuts food stamps by $8 billion over the next decade, much less than the $40-billion reduction initially approved by the Republican-led House. The law puts an end to direct payments to farmers — a controversial program in which farmers received federal subsidies regardless of their output. The White House had argued that many payments went to wealthy farmers.
If the law is a sign of hope for compromise on other measures, there were also signs Friday of the limits on bipartisan comity. No Republican lawmakers attended the signing event, to which the White House said it invited about 50 lawmakers from both parties.
"Everyone invited has to speak for himself or herself about their decision to attend or not attend," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "Look, this was a bipartisan effort and everyone involved in it deserves credit. The president is happy to share credit for that."
Tamara Hinton, a spokeswoman for House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) said he was invited but that "prior commitments in Oklahoma prevented him from attending."
Lucas released a statement calling the bill a safety net for the food supply and struggling Americans with a focus "rightly placed on reducing the size and cost of the federal government."
The president's trip included a tour of the Michigan Biotechnology Institute, a subsidiary of the university that develops ways of processing corn and wheat into biofuels, animal feed and other products. Wearing protective goggles and a crisp dark suit, Obama walked amid the stainless steel containers and pipe work of the center's fermentation facility.
"This is a very fancy pressure cooker," he explained to reporters trailing him.
Later, the president ran his fingers through a container of mulch-like material, which he said was a corn byproduct.
"What we're doing here is finding more efficient ways to convert it into usable pellets that can enhance the feeding of livestock, to a whole host of other things," he said, describing the process as "energy-efficient and environmentally sound."
Obama's trip also included a lunch with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. In September, the Obama administration offered a $300-million aid package to the financially troubled city and suggested there would be more coming. But the White House said Friday that the president was not coming to Michigan with any additional federal help.
On Friday, Obama's primary focus was on rural America, not the struggle of urban Detroit. The White House praised the agriculture law for supporting growth in rural America and Obama repeated his hopes that this would be a rebound year for the economy.
The January jobs report released Friday showed lower-than-expected growth, but the unemployment rate dropped to 6.6%, the statistic the president chose to highlight.
"Our unemployment rate is now the lowest it's been since before I was first elected," Obama said before signing the farm bill on stage with Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow and other Democratic lawmakers. "The companies across the country are saying they intend to hire even more folks in the months ahead. And that's why I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America."
The White House sought to focus on the farming sector as a bright spot in the economy and announced a new export initiative, which includes a series of "Made in Rural America" forums aimed at educating local governments and groups on how to promote exports.
The Agriculture Department will train its employees to better advise producers on how to connect with foreign businesses, officials said, while the administration's Rural Council, an advisory board, will convene a conference on investing in rural America.