The acting U.S. secretary of commerce is -- naturally -- bullish on the economy, but she thinks the country has to get its long-term house in order.

"In election season we don't talk enough about the long-term things," said Rebecca Blank. "The long-term investments to make sure that America stays competitive -- not next year, but 10 years, 20 years down the road -- I think are as important, if not more important, than what we do next month."

Blank, a graduate of Alexander Ramsey High School and the University of Minnesota, visited the Twin Cities Monday to announce the names of board members who will oversee construction of a $7 billion nationwide wireless network for first responders.

The project to help firefighters and police communicate better with each other is one example of infrastructure spending Blank says will keep the American economy strong decades, along with spending and reforms in innovation and education. The announcement was watched by public safety officials and telecommunications contractors who might land business building the network.

In an interview, Blank said manufacturing has added 500,000 jobs in the past three years. She expects the trend to continue.

"I'm not an optimist on everything economics, but I am an optimist on the next five years, the amount of investment in the U.S. we are going to see on the part of manufacturers," Blank said.

She's not as optimistic about the European economy or a rapid housing recovery. Volatile gas prices have also slowed the recovery. But she said the United States can solve short-term and long-term problems by spending more money on infrastructure.

"Interest rates are the lowest you will see in your lifetime, and construction workers the highest unemployed group in the economy," Blank said. "If we don't deal with our infrastructure problems now, it will only be more expensive and more difficult."

The Department of Commerce wants to encourage long-term growth by pushing for more federal research and development spending, streamlining the patent system, harmonizing the patent system with systems used in other countries, and giving federal money to state and local governments responsible for education.

"We need to have a skilled workforce out there, and we can talk about everything from preschool to graduate school," Blank said. "It's a long pipeline, and if we don't graduate them today with the right skills, we'll have them around for the next 40 years."

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405