Obama in Ohio: The Stimulus Challenge

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Columbus, OH — Perhaps no state highlights the challenges facing Barack Obama and the Democrats this fall more than Ohio. The state’s unemployment rate is pushing 11 percent, above the national average, and although there is precious little sense here that an economic recovery is underway. Voters are feeling not just economic insecurity but “fear,” as one operative here put it to me. But it’s Democratic candidates who are running scared—including the state’s incumbent governor, Ted Strickland, who is up for re-election this fall. (His Republican opponent: Former Ohio Congressman and cable chat-show regular John Kasich.)

Barack Obama believes he has a positive economic story to tell. In downtown Columbus this afternoon he visited the site of a road project in the state’s capitol, which the White House says is the 10,000 funded by the $787 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress in February of last year. That act of Congress has created  hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide—including more than 100,000 in Ohio, Obama asserted today, adding: “This is a big [comedic pause] deal,” a mock-quote of Vice President Joe Biden’s infamously profane description of health care reform. “Since I was here last year, we’ve begun to see progress all across the country.” (The message was illustrated by a tableau of heavy construction equipment and tough-guy construction workers flanking the president in the baking sun.)

But voters here, and around the country, will hear a very different story from Republicans, who point to lingering high unemployment and say that the stimulus did little but balloon the federal deficit and grow the government. “Ask unemployed Ohioans how the stimulus is working,” Republican state auditor Mary Taylor said in a conference call with reporters before the event.

“There are a lot of naysayers” about the stimulus’s impact, Strickland told reporters after the event, adding that those people “simply do not know what they are talking about.” His political fate, and that of Democrats nationwide this fall, could depend on the success of events like today’s in winning that argument. But one thing is for sure: Obama will be back to make the case again soon.