MARINETTE, Wisconsin — President Trump promoted his ability to lead the U.S. on an economic comeback Thursday at a shipbuilding plant in this swing state where he trails Democratic rival Joseph R. Biden.
“Under this administration, American workers like you are national treasures — that’s why we’re protecting our defense industrial base,” the president told Wisconsin workers at Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard, which was awarded a $5 billion contract to build 10 new guided-missile frigates for the Navy.
He said the U.S. military was “very tired from fighting endless wars” when he became president and embarked on a defense buildup.
The new ships, he said, will convey the message around the world that “American might is second to none.”
The contract is expected to generate about 1,000 jobs in the community, which turned out with flags, bunting and Trump 2020 signs along the president’s motorcade route.
Mr. Trump won the swing state of Wisconsin in 2016, but he’s trailing Mr. Biden by 8 percentage points in a poll by Marquette University this week.
The president leaned into electoral politics in his outdoor speech before hundreds, saying Democrats were “a little crazy” and tougher to deal with than foreign nations led by strongmen, including China, Russia and North Korea.
The president said the Wisconsin plant was down to a few dozen workers not long ago, but it’s rebounding with the new Navy contract.
“The world is watching you,” he told workers. “Our nation is very proud of Wisconsin.”
He said the town is helping the U.S. create a Navy that “will be bigger and stronger than ever before.”
Four company executives took Mr. Trump, trade adviser Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on a half-hour tour of the Fincantieri plant. The executives wore masks, while the president and his advisers did not.
Mr. Trump said the plant wasn’t in good shape but had rebounded under a lengthy contract with the Navy. He extolled the U.S.-made ships after viewing a model of a Navy vessel.
“They’re magnificent, fast, with tremendous firepower, all built in Wisconsin, so we’re very happy with [that],” he said.
The president put on his salesman hat in his speech, claiming he personally changed the design of Navy ship to make it a “like a yacht with missiles on it, OK?”
“It’s, like, beautiful,” Mr. Trump said. “We’ll always live by two simple rules — buy American and hire American.”
Mr. Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said he deserves credit for progress in the area and that Mr. Trump should accept blame for recent turmoil.
“Donald Trump is in Marinette to take credit for Obama-Biden Administration-fueled successes in an attempt to paper over the fact that Wisconsin has been bleeding blue-collar manufacturing jobs over the past few weeks,” the Biden campaign said. “Instead of offering real relief to working families, he’s trying to claim credit for progress in Marinette he did not build.”
Nearly 1.5 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, exceeding a Wall Street estimate of 1.35 million. California contributed the biggest surge, as nationwide claims stood above 1 million for the 14th consecutive week.
The overall number of those who were receiving unemployment benefits, or “continuing claims,” fell by 767,000, however, to 19.52 million, signaling the rate of layoffs is slowing but still uncomfortably high.
The Commerce Department also confirmed that the U.S. economy shrank at an annualized rate of 5% in the first quarter.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow acknowledged the struggle Thursday, but said he was still in the camp that’s forecasting a quick, “v-shaped” economic recovery as states relax their coronavirus-related lockdowns.
“We’re still looking for a strong second-half rebound — 20% percent-plus [growth],” he said.
Mr. Trump is trying to highlight America’s “transition to greatness” as it climbs out of the depths of the coronavirus pandemic. He is also trying to rev up his reelection campaign by restarting rallies.
Yet a coronavirus surge across the South and West is complicating the effort.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he is pausing his state’s reopening plan even as Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence touted an “American comeback” in the Midwest.
“All 50 states have started to open up our economies again,” Mr. Pence said at Lordstown Motors in Ohio. “While you see in the news over the past week or so we have rising cases and outbreaks in several southern states, I want to assure you that our task force and our entire administration is working continuously with leaders in those states to respond.”
He said he will be traveling to Texas and Arizona in the coming days to meet with governors and health officials.
At the White House, Mr. Kudlow said one thing is for sure — the U.S. is not going to shut the lights off again.
“We will not shut the economy down — we’re not getting that advice from the health people,” he said.
⦁ Tom Howell Jr. reported from Washington. David Sherfinski also contributed to this report.