In a quick trip to Pennsylvania, a politically critical state, Obama proposed a tax credit and other ideas aimed at getting businesses to retrofit their buildings and save costs. He acknowledged that as presidential ideas go, making commercial buildings more energy efficient "may not sound too sexy," but he said the commitment to such research could save billions in utility bills and create jobs of true "national purpose."
"Making our buildings more energy efficient is one of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to save money, combat pollution and create jobs," Obama told a supportive crowd of invited guests, many of them students, at Pennsylvania State University. The president chose Penn State largely because of its lead role in a research hub, under way in Philadelphia, that centers on energy-efficient technology.
Obama's broader aim is to build public and congressional support for the long-term economic ideas he outlined in his State of the Union address last week. The agenda of that speech, though, has since been vastly overshadowed by the political upheaval and violence in Egypt.
At Penn State, the president sought to underline how committing to energy could create jobs - the top concern across the country.
Referring to the emerging energy research center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Obama said: "The discoveries made on this campus will lead to even more jobs - jobs in engineering, jobs in manufacturing, jobs in construction, jobs in insulation, jobs in retail. They'll be jobs with a national purpose - jobs that make our economy smarter, jobs that make our planet safer, jobs that maintain America's competitive edge."
The innovation hub is getting a big help from taxpayers: $129 million in federal money over five years.
As part of his new plan, Obama will ask Congress to provide companies with a tax credit that financially rewards them for retrofitting their buildings in ways that decrease energy usage. The proposal would alter the existing tax break for such commercial upgrades, switching it from a deduction to a credit that applies more widely, administration officials said.
Obama's new buildings proposal also calls for broader access to financing for businesses that want to make energy-saving upgrades; competitive grants for states and local governments that make it easier for companies to upgrade their buildings; and more training for workers in the field of commercial building technology. He challenged corporate executives and university presidents to help the cause.
Obama is trying to press on with his economic ideas, ahead of the release of his budget plan on Feb. 14, while he manages his response to the violent clashes that have Egypt and the Mideast on the edge. Earlier in the day, Obama addressed the continuing violence during remarks at a prayer breakfast in Washington. But he made no mention of the Egyptian turmoil in his Penn State remarks.
The president twice mentioned Joe Paterno, the locally beloved 84-year-old coach of the Penn State football team, who was in the audience.
Speaking directly to the mostly youthful audience, Obama said: "What you're going to do is lead a modern day incubator for what sets us apart, the greatest force that the world has ever known and that is the American idea."
The White House is targeting the commercial sector because its buildings consume roughly 20 percent of all energy in the U.S. economy.
Administration officials offered no details on how much Obama's plan would cost. They said those details will be released in the budget and the proposed elimination of oil industry subsidies would help cover the costs.
Before making his remarks in Penn State's Rec Hall, Obama received a tutorial on energy research designed to improve indoor air quality and another on high performance wall systems, donning safety goggles for one experiment.
The president won Pennsylvania in the 2008 general election; it is sure to figure prominently in his bid for re-election next year.
Rob Gleason, chairman of Pennsylvania's Republican party, said Obama's visit is a sign that the 2012 campaign is in full swing.
In a Thursday morning conference call, Gleason questioned whether Obama's energy policy could be trusted and criticized what he called the administration's "runaway spending" and hostile position toward industry.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington and Genaro Armas in State College contributed to this report.