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On The Road, Obama Faces Mixed Reaction Over Jobs

President Obama speaks Wednesday at North Carolina State University in Raleigh about the American Jobs Act.
President Obama speaks Wednesday at North Carolina State University in Raleigh about the American Jobs Act.

For the second time in less than a week, President Obama on Wednesday visited a college campus, touting his new jobs plan. He told supporters at North Carolina State University that if Congress goes along with his proposal for tax cuts and new government spending, it will help to restore middle-class jobs.

A new CNN poll shows more Americans support the president's jobs plan than oppose it.

But that survey and others also find widespread disappointment with the U.S. economy — and Obama's handling of it.

At an outdoor rally in Ohio this week, cheering supporters quickly took up Obama's call for Congress to "pass this bill."

Just a couple of blocks away, out of earshot of the rally, it was easy to see the toll that the long economic downturn has taken here in Ohio — an important political battleground that Obama won three years ago.

At a job fair sponsored by the regional logistics council, seasoned managers were putting in resumes for entry-level stock jobs. Matt Dawson lost his job as a lab technician two years ago. He's been looking for work ever since.

"We definitely need help," Dawson said. "I was making $16 an hour, and I'm considering jobs at 11, 9, 10, 8 [dollars an hour]. And they're tough to come by."

Denise Coffield has been working part-time for minimum wage since losing her job in a corporate downsizing.

"Something's got to change. I mean, the economy's not going to grow if people aren't working and they can't spend money," Coffield said. "I just really hope that something changes soon."

That deep-seated frustration is echoed in national polls, showing that most Americans feel no better off now than they did three years ago. And they doubt that Obama's economic policies are helping.

It's not clear how much the president's new jobs plan will change those numbers. Alex Fischer heads the nonprofit Columbus Partnership, which is made up of some of the area's biggest businesses.

"First we have a bit of skepticism," Fischer said. "I mean, this is Stimulus 2 — you can call it whatever you want to. Is that additional government spend the right strategy?"

Obama's first stimulus effort is widely seen as unsuccessful, even though many economists argue the recession would have been worse without it. Unemployment in Ohio did come down — from a high of 10.6 percent to 8.6 percent this spring. But with money from the first stimulus mostly gone now, unemployment has begun creeping up again.

Belt-tightening local governments continue to shed workers here and across the country. That's why the president of the Columbus teachers union, Rhonda Johnson, was cheering Obama's plan to use new federal dollars to help keep teachers on the payroll.

"I know in Cleveland they had a layoff of more than 300 teachers," Johnson said. "As a union president, the hardest thing that you have to go through is when your members lose their jobs."

Unions played a big role in electing Obama. But labor support could be tempered next year, with so many union members out of work. When asked how enthusiastic his members are about working for the president's re-election, Mario Ciardelli of the Central Ohio Building Trades Council replied, "That's a good question."

"A lot of us were a little disappointed in the recent past that he wasn't able to get things done," Ciardelli said. "And we need to bring jobs back to America. It's eroded our tax base. It's eroded the American Way, the American Dream. People are just losing heart over not having employment."

Ciardelli says the president's newfound push for the jobs act is a major step in boosting support.

Passage of the bill in a divided Congress is anything but certain. Fischer of the Columbus Partnership said he wonders why Washington can't function more like his city, where Democrats and Republicans at least sometimes work together.

"We're able to push out all of this partisanship and all that goes on from that standpoint," Fischer said. "And that's a big frustration in Washington. Not pointing fingers at anybody, but maybe pointing fingers at everybody."

Polls suggest that as doubtful as Americans are about the president's economic policies, they like the Republican alternatives even less.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.