Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama tours the V&M Star steel plant in Youngstown, Ohio, last month. The visit was part of a broader pitch by the president to show how the stimulus package is helping in places like Ohio.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Youngstown, Ohio, is an iconic American city -- once an emblem of industry thriving on the Mahoning River, it has become a symbol of hard times and lost jobs.
President Obama has visited recently, promoting new jobs from his stimulus bill. But the local economy is still hurting, and people are getting weary. That's bad news for Democrats running for governor and senator in Ohio this fall.
When Obama came to Youngstown two weeks ago, he visited the V&M Star steel plant, whose owner is investing $650 million, creating 400 construction jobs and promising 350 permanent jobs. It was part of a broader pitch the president made to show how the stimulus package is helping in places like Ohio.
Still, the jobless rate in this county tops 14 percent, and the recovery feels a long way off, as the president acknowledged that day.
"And a lot of people -- let's just be blunt -- aren't always real impressed when a governor or a president comes swooping in and talking about the economy, because the only headline they want to see is the headline that says 'You're hired,' " he said.
Swooping in with the president that day was Gov. Ted Strickland -- a Democrat in a tough re-election fight against former Rep. John Kasich, a Republican. Strickland replaced a very unpopular Republican in office almost four years ago. Now his bid for a second term is a big-state referendum on White House economic policies.
Bertram de Souza, the editorial page writer for Youngstown's daily newspaper The Vindicator, says Democrats here are not contending with Republicans so much as the high hopes Obama engendered.
"Obama came in and the expectation -- whether it was media-created, whether it was his own campaign that created it, whether it was his own people -- the expectation was so high that this man was going to come in here and actually was going to save the world," he says. "People look around and they say, you know, 'What's going on?' "
Republicans Fired Up
Mahoning County, home to Youngstown, is still a Democratic stronghold. Obama got more than 60 percent of the vote here in 2008; Strickland, more than 75 percent in 2006. If Democrats don't do that well here -- if they fall below 60 percent -- then Republican candidates will carry Ohio.
What's so encouraging to Republicans is that their voters are fired up.
"This is like nothing that I've ever seen before in my 30 years of messing around with politics," says Mark Munroe, the vice-chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party. "The enthusiasm level, the excitement for our side -- for the Republican side."
Munroe says a lot of the credit for that goes to Obama.
"He's been one of our best recruiting tools that we've ever seen, along with [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi," Munroe says. "I make phone calls looking for volunteers, and it used to be like pulling teeth. And now I'll get somebody on the phone, and I'll get a couple of sentences out and it's like, 'Hey! Stop right there. Where do I sign up?' "
Democrats Fight Back
Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to counter that renewed GOP energy. On Wednesday night, the Mahoning County Democratic Party re-elected attorney Dave Betras, 50, as its chairman.
Betras says he's prepared to put the president's record up against Republicans running for governor and U.S. Senate who say the economic stimulus hasn't helped -- or that the bailout of U.S. automakers wasn't necessary. Betras says the president's action saved the nearby General Motors Lordstown plant and thousands of jobs.
"If I could enshrine Barack Obama for what he did [for] General Motors, I would. Because that represents the largest single employer around here, and he saved that for us," Betras says. "And these guys would have ... let it go to the chopping block."
But jobs saved are rarely as potent in politics as jobs lost -- and Ohio has lost 400,000 in the last four years. That's led to a sense of helplessness that may be the Democrats' biggest enemy.
Chuck Muche, 57, is an unemployed Democrat who voted for Obama and thinks he's doing a good job. A former steel worker, he is now laid off from a custodial job. He says he will vote for Democrats this year -- that is, if he votes.
"I'm not sure that I will. I don't see any results no matter who's in there, Republican or Democrat," he says. "And that's a terrible attitude. I know that."
But it's an attitude you hear pretty often these days in Mahoning County, Ohio.