Photo: WFIU/WTIU News
President Obama returned to Elkhart seeking to bring a major part of his presidency full circle, trumpeting what he sees as the city and nation’s economic resurgence.
Obama’s speech was more about looking forward than looking back.
Elkhart is the first city Obama visited as president. Seven and a half years later, he returned to the northern Indiana city with the air of a triumphant hero.
Obama reminded the crowd of more than 2,000 that he pledged, back in 2009, to have their backs as the city struggled through the recession. And the president declared that pledge fulfilled.
Seven Years Later, Is Elkhart Better Off?
“And the results prove that our focus has paid off,” Obama said. “Elkhart proves it.”
By many measures, Elkhart has recovered. Unemployment in 2009 peaked at nearly 20 percent; it’s down to below four percent. The high school graduation rate when Obama first visited was 75 percent; it’s up to 90 percent now. Foreclosures are down; the number of people insured is up.
So is Obama responsible for that recovery, as he claims?
“In these situations, political candidates or even incumbents often get more credit than they deserve and more blame than they deserve,” says John Ketzenberger, Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute President.
He says the Obama administration’s stimulus package did help the overall economy.
Political candidates…often get more credit than they deserve and more blame than they deserve.
“Elkhart’s economy is largely dependent on discretionary spending – the RV industry rises and falls with the economy. So as the economy rose, it recovered,” Ketzenberger says. “When it recovered, it meant more people were working and more people working meant the local economy got better.”
Yet despite being so hard-hit by the recession, Elkhart County Economic Development Corporation CEO Mark Dobson notes Elkhart’s recovery didn’t include diversifying its economy.
“Census Bureau estimates that about 65 percent of jobs in Elkhart County are related to the RV industry, supply or direct tier one,” Dobson says.
Still, President Obama made his case to the Elkhart crowd that his policies are behind their recovery.
Photo: J.D. Gray
Looking Forward To November’s Election
And then he shifted his gaze to November’s election, even though, as he acknowledges, he’s not a candidate.
“So I’m not here looking for votes,” Obama said. “I am here because I care deeply as a citizen about making sure we sustain and build on all the work that communities like yours have done to bring America back over these past seven and a half years.”
And Obama, in his pitch to voters, isn’t shying away from taking plenty of shots at Republicans.
“And the evidence of the last 30 years, not to mention common sense, should tell you that their answers to our challenges are no answers at all,” he said.
Yet Ketzenberger says the chances of Obama’s pitch succeeding, in Indiana at least, don’t seem high.
“I’d be very surprised if either of the Democrats who are possible candidates for the presidency are able to carry Indiana,” Ketzenberger says. “I say that, though – we’re almost six months out and a lot can happen between now and then.”
I care deeply as a citizen about making sure we sustain and build on all the work that communities like yours have done to bring America back over these past seven and a half years.
Still, the president’s Elkhart speech revealed a new strategy:
“And I came here precisely because this county votes Republican,” Obama said Wednesday. “That’s one of the reasons I came here because if the economy is really what’s driving this election then it’s going to be voters like you that have to decide between two very different visions of what’s going to help strengthen our middle class.”
And that strategy of reaching out to Republican voters he hopes feel uncomfortable with Donald Trump as their party’s candidate includes plenty of attacks on Trump’s proposals.
“That will not bring jobs back; that is not fighting for the American middle class,” he said. “That will not help us win. That is not going to make your lives better; that will help people like him.”
The Indiana Republican Party had its own message for Obama, saying his policies have raised family health care costs and saddled business owners with what it calls “crushing regulations.”