Tuesday June 25th, 2024 5:58PM

In one North Carolina county, it's 'growth, growth, growth.' But will Biden reap the benefit?

By The Associated Press

SILER CITY, N.C. (AP) — At the epicenter of President Joe Biden’s promised economic boom, a slow tractor can still halt traffic.

Just 81,000 people live in rural Chatham County, North Carolina. There are 1,076 farms. The old mill now houses a dance studio, a grocer and a steakhouse. For work, many people have no choice but to commute to nearby Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh.

But after years of careful planning, Chatham County has started to change.

The new Wolfspeed factory — six football fields long — overlooks I-64 and will soon produce advanced wafers for computer chips. Automaker Vinfast is scheduled to open a factory as well. Both projects stem in large part from incentives that Biden signed into law.

Developers, including the Walt Disney Corp., plan to build several thousand new homes.

“When the right opportunity came along, we were there and we were ready,” said Greg Lewis, who owns the steakhouse. “It is growth, growth, growth.”

That same economic story is being replicated in a number of other critical battleground states, including Arizona and Georgia.

But while the kind of enthusiasm voiced by Lewis would usually mean a strong tailwind for an incumbent president, so far this election year there is little evidence from polling that Americans are giving Biden credit for the gains as voters still focus instead on inflation still climbing at 3.4% annually.

TRUMP AND BIDEN HAVE DIFFERENT VIEWS ON A GROWING ECONOMY

Places like Chatham County show how this year’s presidential campaign offers two conflicting visions for America's economic future.

Voters face a decades-defining choice about what can do more for growth: former President Donald Trump's preference for tax cuts skewed toward business and the wealthy or the targeted government investments backed by Biden as well as possible tax increases to fund programs for the middle class.

The county backed Biden over Trump in 2020 but sits in the solidly Republican congressional district of Rep. Richard Hudson. He voted against the Democratic president's policies and his office declined to answer questions about whether the investments in his district are a positive.

Just how much the influx of federal and private sector money affects the political dynamics in North Carolina and beyond will have a lot to say about who will win November's presidential election.

Biden is campaigning on how his policies have helped pump hundreds of billions of dollars in private and federal investment into companies, helping to revive the faded computer chip sector and pioneer newer technologies such as electric vehicles, solar panels and artificial intelligence. But so far, the investments have not significantly swayed the public.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, maintains that Biden’s ideas would wreck the economy and that EVs will flop against a proven fuel such as gasoline. He says corporate tax cuts would do more to bolster growth by letting companies choose their own path, and a threat of higher tariffs would cause them to keep their factory jobs inside the United States.

“Would everybody like to buy an electric car?” Trump asked at a recent rally, where he was met with a chorus of “No!”

When Biden spoke at Wolfspeed’s headquarters in Durham last year, he described its chips as not just powering the economy but protecting it from supply chain disruptions and competition from China.

“It’s a game changer,” he said. “We’re turning things around in a big way.”

MANUFACTURING INVESTMENTS INCREASING

The new Wolfspeed factory has begun installing its industrial furnaces that heat to half of the sun's temperatures. The factory is prepared to start production by the end of the year, while many of the other announced government incentives around the country are still blueprints or in the construction phase.

Pending administration approval, the company may receive support through tax credits from Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. It also has applied for funding through the Commerce Department as part of the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act.

Wolfspeed CEO Gregg Lowe said the potential for government support has been “very important” as the company has sought to produce more silicon carbide, a material that increases the efficiency of computer chips. He said the material will “lead to one of the most important transitions in the history of semiconductors,” allowing EVs, solar panels, data centers and other technologies such as energy storage to work better.

Even if the company is more focused on its business than electoral politics, the changes in Chatham County go beyond the factory in ways that could matter in November.

People can see the new hotel, the new gasoline stations and the acres of lots set aside for new housing. County Commissioner Karen Howard, a Democrat, said the debate is being forced as Democrats point to what they say is clear evidence they are delivering on their promises. Howard stressed that the gains came as a result of years of county officials' groundwork for sustainable growth that was then complemented by federal policies.

“It feels like Republicans have turned a blind eye to what voters want,” she said. “Tax cuts for the biggest boys in the world never got down to the person who is barely scraping by.”

Howard said the expected total of 1,800 jobs at the Wolfspeed facility will transform households.

“When we say it's making generational change for these families, you now have individuals who will make more than their entire family did in a year,” Howard said.

But Republicans in North Carolina's legislature say investments in the state had more to do with their own policies than the incentives from Biden. GOP lawmakers are making the argument that the impact of inflation during Biden's presidency matters more to voters.

“We’ve lowered taxes, grown the state economy and built the nation’s best workforce," said Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate. "Bidenomics here means higher costs for families and businesses, which is what voters will remember when heading to the polls.”

Both Trump and Biden have committed to increasing factory production in the U.S. and making it less reliant on countries such as China. So far, the numbers suggest that Biden’s policies have done more for manufacturing than Trump’s 2017 tax cuts.

Census Bureau figures show that the annualized rate of factory construction spending peaked at $82 billion annually under Trump. As of last March, adjusting for inflation, it has more than doubled under Biden to a record $223 billion. The president has also added more manufacturing jobs than Trump did before the disruptions caused by the 2020 pandemic.

EVEN WITH NEW FACTORY INVESTMENTS, THERE ARE RISKS

But that does not mean Biden’s industrial strategy is a sure thing.

Chatham County records indicate that Vinfast has scaled down the footprint of its EV plant, with the company saying in a statement that it's "currently reviewing the construction of the factory.”

Administration officials say success will require breakthroughs to lower the production costs of advanced computer chips relative to Asia. More drivers will also need to switch to EVs and reverse the recent slowdown in sales.

Some Republicans see room both for some of Biden's policies as well as tax cuts, saying that a mix was the optimal course for success.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., voted for the CHIPS and Science Act, which funds semiconductor plants. Tillis said after touring Wolfspeed's new factory that the combination of tax breaks and government financial support has been key for attracting new factories.

“At the end of the day, it’s the balance that makes the difference,” he said in an interview outside the factory.

As Wolfspeed's Lowe explained it, the chips produced by the company's factory will help the U.S. to compete against China in the EV, solar panel and artificial intelligence sectors. He happens to drive an EV made by Lucid that contains his own company’s chips, which help give it an impressive range of 516 miles, enough for him to drive to his Ohio hometown with a single charging stop.

The CEO did not speculate about the outcome of the election, but he said technologies such as silicon carbide represent “a monumental change in the history of semiconductors” that is helping to remake the economy.

In short, he sees no going back.

“I tell our people this all the time, you know, in 30 years you’re going to look back to this moment and it’s going to be your mission control, Apollo 13 moment, where you say, ‘I was there when this technology switched.’”

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