07.01.11

Obama Bets 2012 on Factory Jobs

The president is barnstorming factories in swing states, banking on a return of jobs in time for the election. Eleanor Clift says the strategy could pay big dividends—if he’s right.

President Obama is betting that made-in-America manufacturing is poised for a comeback, and that a little-noticed renaissance in the industrial heartland will bump up jobs numbers next year and bolster his chances for reelection.

That’s why the president is pleading for patience and spending so much time recently visiting factories—particularly those involved high-tech green manufacturing—in states that he carried in 2008 but have been put back into the tossup column this election by high unemployment.

In the last three months, he has touted renewable energy and robotics in Pennsylvania, toured a Chrysler plant in Ohio, marveled at advanced vehicles in Virginia, and held up as models an energy-efficient lighting manufacturer in North Carolina and an aluminum producer in Iowa that makes airplane wings, including for Air Force One. Each of these states is critical to an Obama victory, and not one is safely his today.

Obama’s campaign team once thought that health-care reform would be the centerpiece of the reelection effort, but that didn’t work out. And so they’re left with highlighting the glimmers of light that are out there.

Jobs are the issue on which the election will turn. Even Bill Clinton, from retirement, is compelled to weigh in.

At each stop, Obama points out that the problems plaguing the economy didn’t happen overnight, and won’t be solved overnight. “But we will solve them,” he says, pointing to the innovators and entrepreneurs building a new clean energy economy, and asking the voters to give him more time.     

It is a message that tests well, says Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and one of the founders of Priorities USA, a newly created “super” political action committee that is raising money to help Obama win.

“While people are obviously frustrated at the slow pace of economic change, very few are blaming the president,” Garin says. “What they most want to hear—and what the president is responding to in his travels—is that there is a way forward, that there is a real plan and a real commitment to renew the economy.”

The kind of manufacturing Obama holds up as the future relies on workers skilled in computers, math and science, and bears little resemblance to the assembly line of old. “The outlook for manufacturing is quite bright,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. He predicts that global manufacturers will soon be looking to locate plants in the U.S. to gain access to an educated work force and capitalize on the falling value of the dollar compared to China’s currency.

Zandi advised Republican John McCain in 2000 and 2008, but his bullish views on the economy have made him an Obama favorite.

He told reporters at a breakfast in Washington last week that he expects the unemployment rate to fall from the current 9.1 percent to something closer to 8 percent by Election Day. Not great for a president seeking reelection, but not altogether bad either.

The president is doing what any communications specialist would recommend, says veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook, and that is seeking out success stories in battleground states.

“There isn’t much they can do to change the trajectory [of the economy], but voters want to see him trying his best. They’re doing the politics right—they’ve just been dealt a lousy hand, and they’re making the best of it.”

No Democrat since John F. Kennedy has won the presidency without Ohio. The state was tough for Obama in ’08, “and it’s much tougher this time,” Cook says.

Obama’s campaign team once thought that health-care reform would be the centerpiece of the reelection effort, but that didn’t work out. And so his advisers are left with highlighting the glimmers of light that are out there.

If Democrats lose Ohio, they’ve got to make sure they fill that void, which is why Virginia and North Carolina figure prominently in these factory visits, along with an effort to cinch up some of the newer states for a Democrat like New Mexico, Colorado and to a lesser extent Arizona, which is a much longer shot. 

Obama can put all the gloss he wants on promising ventures, but in the end, he is hostage to the economic forces that are already in place.

“Highlighting individual success stories can help only at the margins,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a veteran of the Clinton White House. “It’s no substitute for a perceptible upturn in the economy that brings down unemployment. If unemployment is at 9 percent a year from now, all the success stories won’t save him.”

Democrats take heart from President Reagan’s reelection in 1984 with unemployment at 7.2 percent, down from a high of 10.8 percent. It’s the direction of the trend, not the absolute numbers, Democrats argue.

But Galston says what made the difference for Reagan was also the velocity of the change. A drop of more than three and a half percentage points in two years. “People felt something was different,” he says. “At some point, quantitative change produces qualitative change.”

What Obama is doing is a classic strategy with little risk other than appearing out of touch if he sounds too upbeat.

When he called a weak jobs report “a bump in the road,” Republicans rushed to accuse him of being insensitive to the legion of unemployed.

If a turnaround fueled by manufacturing is on the way, Obama could benefit, and if it’s too little too late for him, he might leave a better hand for his successor than the one he got.