Make us your home page
Instagram

Improving economy complicates Republican message but picture still tough for President Barack Obama

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Mitt Romney stood in an industrial manufacturing plant attacking President Barack Obama.

"He's a nice guy, but he's in over his head," Romney said. "We need to have a president who understands the economy if we're going to fix the economy."

The campaign arranged for plant employees to sit behind Romney, stagecraft that would play well on TV a day before Ohio's crucial Republican presidential primary this month. But the workers provided a different script.

"Times were tough around here," 35-year-old Chris Marrone said in an interview. "Everybody was nervous, but we're starting to see orders coming in."

A slow but measurable economic comeback — from lower unemployment to a soaring stock market, higher auto sales and daily improvement in battered areas like Youngstown — is complicating the Republican game plan.

Unemployment, still dangerously high at 8.3 percent, and the economy remain voters' top concerns and Obama's chief re-election obstacle, but the issue is less of a wedge.

"It's a jump ball," said Republican economist Doug Holtz-Eakin.

As the GOP candidates campaign across key swing states, their gloom clashes with upbeat assessments from Republican governors, such as Ohio's John Kasich and Florida's Rick Scott, who tout job growth and falling unemployment.

The mixed signals have forced candidates to tweak their message. "You know, the economy may be getting better and Republicans may lose their edge on that issue," Rick Santorum, Romney's top rival, told Missouri voters recently.

Santorum, among others, is shifting his focus to similarities between the health care plan Romney ushered in as governor of Massachusetts and the national program adopted under Obama.

"Obamacare should be the No. 1 issue in the campaign. I think it's the gift that keeps giving," Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the Weekly Standard.

Romney, who has been dragged into emotional arguments over birth control and immigration as he strains to win over conservatives, has tried to refocus his message.

"We are going to campaign on the economy. After any recession, the country rebounds," spokesman Ryan Williams said, asserting Obama's policies have prolonged the hardship.

He said Santorum's position is evidence he's an "economic lightweight" and disagreed that Romney's message clashed with the governors. "We obviously think more could have been done on the federal level to promote our economic recovery."

Even so, three consecutive months of strong job growth, including 227,000 added in February, have taken some bite out of Romney's message. He's adjusted by emphasizing the millions still looking for work, including veterans, and higher gas prices, which Newt Gingrich has made the exclusive focus of his fading campaign.

Gasoline has reached $4 a gallon in parts of the country and the pain is expected to persist. Obama has launched an aggressive effort to ascribe the spike to factors out of his hands, such as turmoil in the Middle East, a hard sell even if experts agree.

"Right now a lot of Americans are expecting the economy to get better and that helps the president," said Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008. "But when they go to the gas pump and see where it is, that makes it more difficult."

Despite higher fuel costs, retail spending increased in February by 1.1 percent, the biggest gain since September. But Obama's chastened reaction shows the degree of worry that gas prices could have on his re-election.

Polls have been volatile — a New York Times/CBS News poll last week showed his approval rating at 41 percent while a National Journal survey put it at 51 percent. But the National Journal poll showed that 60 percent of Americans anticipate improvement over the coming year, up from 50 percent in October.

The president faces a delicate task of not seeming too confident yet trying to take credit for the improvements. He tried to walk the line during a March 9 speech at a manufacturing facility in Petersburg, Va., acknowledging that Americans are still hurting while expressing confidence the rebound will continue.

"Our job now is to keep this economic engine churning," Obama said. "We can't go back to the same policies that got us into this mess. We can't go back to an economy that was weakened by outsourcing and bad debt and phony financial profits."

Obama made a similar argument in the 2010 midterm elections, but it fell flat against tea-party-fueled anger about rising spending and debt. Republicans swept those elections and took control of the House, crippling the Democratic agenda.

This time, though, Obama has distinct signs of recovery. His campaign on Thursday released a documentary-style, 17-minute film tracing the steps to shore up the economy.

"Obviously if the economy improves it puts people in a better mood and they are more likely to vote for the incumbent," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington.

He said Romney can still turn it into a question of who is better qualified to lead on the economy. Romney says his many years as a businessman give him a perspective that Obama lacks.

Romney has to balance, too. "He has to be careful he's not seen as trying to talk down the economy," Feehery said.

In Youngstown, Romney gave a mostly downbeat assessment, talking about stagnant wages, higher gas prices and budget deficits. "I want to get America strong again, and I will do it with your help," Romney said, casting Obama as "out of ideas."

The first question from the audience came from a woman who worked at a Delphi plant that supplied parts for GM. As part of the auto bailout, she said, her pension benefits were slashed. Romney accused Obama of "crony capitalism" and propping up auto union workers. But the hard lines did not elicit much reaction. The nearby GM plant, which makes the Chevrolet Cruze, is thriving after the bailout that Romney opposed.

"I understand the concept of being against it, but it helped us," said Mollie Dennison, 51, a Democrat who showed up to the rally and said she was considering voting for Romney because jobs overall are still scarce.

Erica Wentz-Jones, another Democrat who showed up to hear what Romney had to say but supports Obama, said she worried Romney's message would win the day.

"I don't know if the American voter is all that well educated," she said. "I'm concerned they have a very short memory, they may not know the cause of the economic downturn and because President Obama didn't fix it in the blink of an eye, that it's all his fault."

But Marrone, the plant employee who sat in the audience, thinks the signs of a comeback will buoy the president. "I think (voters) will be afraid to make decisions that would change the way things are going."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com.

Improving economy complicates Republican message but picture still tough for President Barack Obama 03/18/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 18, 2012 11:23pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Grocery chain Aldi hiring for 500 positions across Florida

    Retail

    Aldi, the German grocery store chain, is hiring for 500 positions across Florida, including at its locations in Tampa Bay. The company will hold a "one-day hiring spree" Thursday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. at all Aldi stores in the state, a Tuesday release said.

    Aldi, a German grocery store chain, is hiring for 500 positions across the state. | [Times file photo]
  2. Irma's death toll in Florida rises to 42, but will grow

    News

    TALLAHASSEE —Deadly carbon monoxide fumes have killed 11 people in Florida as Hurricane Irma's death toll rose to 42 on Tuesday, state officials reported.

    A resident walks by a pile of debris caused by a storm surge during Hurricane Irma in Everglades City. The isolated Everglades City community of about 400 people suffered some of Florida's worst storm surges, up to 9 feet (2.7 meters), when Hurricane Irma slammed the region eight days ago, leaving the insides of homes a sodden mess and caking the streets with mud. The storm affected nearly every part of the state, and, so far, the death toll stands at 42. [AP Photo | Alan Diaz]
  3. After Irma, Tampa Bay synagogues get ready for Rosh Hashana

    Religion

    As the holiest days of the Jewish calendar approached, so did Hurricane Irma.

    Congregants open the ark which holds several torah scrolls during Selichot services at Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg on Saturday, September 16, 2017. The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana begins at sundown on Wednesday night.
  4. Toys 'R' Us files for bankruptcy but keeps stores open (w/video)

    Retail

    NEW YORK — Toys 'R' Us, the big box toy retailer struggling with $5 billion in debt and intense online competition, has filed for bankruptcy protection ahead of the key holiday shopping season — and says its stores will remain open for business as usual.

    Shoppers shop in a Toys R Us store on Black Friday in Miami in 2016. Toys R Us, the pioneering big box toy retailer, announced late Monday, Sept. 18, 2017 it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection while continuing with normal business operations. [Associated Press]
  5. Trigaux: Waiting for your next pay raise? Keep dreaming, employers hint

    Working Life

    The economy's bouncing back. The stock market keeps hitting new records. And the jobless rate in Florida may soon drop below 4 percent. Surely, these are robust indicators — key signs that an annual raise is just around the corner. Right?

    Who doesn't want a pay raise? Demonstrators have rallied for years in a number of states for a $15 minimum wage. But many workers across a broad pay range are unlikely to see much if any raises this year, a new survey says. [AP Photo/Seth Wenig]