President Barack Obama’s first trip of the election year puts him at a crucial juncture for his chances to win a second term: talking about the economy in Ohio, a key swing state that was battered by the recession.
As Republicans running for the chance to challenge Obama in November move today from Iowa to New Hampshire, the president will kick off his 2012 re-election bid at a high school in Shaker Heights, just outside Cleveland, repeating themes he has laid out over the past two months, including his struggles with congressional Republicans who have blocked his agenda.
Obama “will be focused on the economy and on what he can do as president to deliver on his promise to do everything he can to help the middle class, grow the economy and create jobs,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Obama’s political advisers are increasingly concerned about winning Ohio’s 18 electoral votes in 2012. When campaign manager Jim Messina and chief strategist David Axelrod last month laid out five paths for Obama to get the necessary 270 Electoral College votes needed to win re-election, only one of them included Ohio.
Obama last visited Ohio on Sept. 22 to urge Congress to pass his $447 billion jobs bill to boost a sputtering economy. Since then, the state’s economy has improved. The Buckeye State showed an overall increase in its economic health of 0.7 percent in 2011, one of 13 states showing a gain, according to a Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States Index, which uses employment, real estate, taxes and local stocks to track the direction of state economies.
The state, which is second only to Michigan in the percentage of jobs lost in the last decade, has added 75,600 positions during the 12-month period ending in November. The unemployment rate, at 8.5 percent in November, has fallen steadily from its peak of 10.6 percent in February 2010 and is lower than the 8.6 percent rate when Obama took office in January 2009.
The improvements in Ohio have mirrored the national economy. The Institute for Supply Management said yesterday its U.S. factory index climbed to 53.9 last month from 52.7 in November, the fastest pace in six months and higher than forecast. The Tempe, Arizona-based group’s data showed factory orders and production grew at the strongest rates in eight months while inventories were cut.
Combined with a Commerce Department report showing construction spending climbed in November, the figures indicate the world’s largest economy accelerated in the final months of 2011.
“President Obama is in much better shape today than he was about six months ago,” David Gergen, director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in an interview on Bloomberg Radio’s “Bloomberg Surveillance.”
“That does not mean he is not vulnerable; he is.” Gergen said. Still, the fractured Republican primary campaign has helped make Obama “look a little more presidential at this point.”
Ohio has been a bellwether in modern presidential politics, voting for the winner in every election since 1964. No Republican has won the presidency without also winning Ohio, though four Democrats -- James Buchanan in 1856, Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892, Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and John Kennedy in 1960 -- have won election without the state.
While Obama won Ohio in 2008 with 51.5 percent of the vote, Republicans swept statewide offices in the 2010 midterm election, won the U.S. Senate race and replaced five Democrats in the House of Representatives. Messina’s scenarios include the possibility of losing the state and several others that Obama took in 2008, when he garnered 365 electoral votes.
On balance, Republicans are a bit more dependent on Ohio in the presidential election than Democrats, said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
“Very few Democrats have been elected without carrying Ohio, but history shows it’s a little less crucial,” Green said.
The concern for Obama’s campaign, he said, is that some of the Republican-leaning states Obama won in 2008, such as Indiana and Virginia, may this year swing back to Republicans.
“So Ohio becomes really very important” Green said.
Obama’s battles with Republicans in Congress include his nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the Dodd-Frank law regulating the financial industry.
Blocked in Senate
Cordray’s confirmation was blocked last month by Senate Republicans who object to the bureau’s structure. Obama and his advisers are debating whether to attempt a recess appointment of Cordray as soon as today, a move that probably will invite an election-year court battle, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Obama has said the bureau is critical to protecting middle-income Americans from “unscrupulous” lenders, a pitch that may appeal to voters in Ohio where the median household income is $45,467 compared with the national figure of $50,221.
Ohio, along with neighboring Pennsylvania, has been a frequent stop for Obama, who has made 16 previous visits to the state since taking office. Only New York, where Obama goes for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly and Sept. 11 commemorations, and Virginia, the location of the Pentagon and other Washington-area federal facilities, have seen the president more often.