Analysis: Obama seeks votes among the unemployed

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Economy is destiny for the Democrats and President Barack Obama, who began his campaign week in Rhode Island, where unemployment is measured at 11.5 percent. He has stops planned in Pennsylvania (at 9 percent), Illinois (9.9 percent) and Ohio (10 percent) before Election Day.

Just as striking as the jobless figures is the calculation that those are among the states where the president might make a difference in the final days of the campaign, perhaps helping salvage a handful of key races for the beleaguered Democrats. He won those four states and their 70 electoral votes in 2008, some handily, some not, and will need them again in his re-election campaign in 2012.

On a one-day trip to the nation’s smallest state on Monday, Obama presented a pair of arguments to voters still making up their minds.

The first asserts that the Republicans drove the economy into the proverbial ditch over the eight years of the Bush administration and now offer a return trip to the wreckage. The second, more forward-looking, says that due to policies his administration and Democrats in Congress put into place – no thanks to the GOP – improvement is in the air.

“It needs some body work, needs a tuneup. But it’s pointing in the right direction. The engine is turning and it’s ready to go,” he said at a fundraiser in Rhode Island, where joblessness is fourth highest in the country.

Earlier, Obama described a factory he had just toured in the same upbeat terms in which he wants voters to view the overall economy.

“Like most small businesses, American Cord and Webbing has gone through some tough times in the past few years,” he said. “Early in 2009, they lost customers and had to lay off some workers. … And then invested in new products and pursued new customers. And over the past year, they’ve hired back all the workers they had to lay off. And today business is going well.”

Ascendant Republicans seem content to let Obama try to explain the past and peer into the economic future.

They focus on the present in the form of a question – Where are the jobs? – first asked months ago by Rep. John Boehner, the Ohioan in line to become speaker of the House if his party wins control.

In fact, there is no disputing that Republicans opposed, slowed and obstructed legislation that Obama sought and Democrats passed.

Call it crass political opportunism, as Obama does, or principled disagreement, as Republicans do, the result was the same. Trench warfare gripped Congress for nearly two years amid high unemployment and a wave of home foreclosures, bank failures and personal bankruptcies. And now comes a political campaign in which the economy is the central issue.

The partisan lines firmed up quickly after the 2008 elections.

In the House, nary a Republican voted for the $814 billion economic stimulus bill that passed in February 2009. In the Senate, the GOP sent a signal of opposition, erecting a 60-vote requirement that Obama and the Democrats were able to overcome only with the help of three renegades.

Republicans attacked the bill as unnecessary federal spending, choosing to overlook that it included $400 tax cuts for most individuals and $800 for couples. “The bill that was about jobs, jobs, jobs has turned into a bill that’s about spending, spending, spending,” Boehner said moments before it passed the House, contemptuously letting a copy of the 1,071-page measure fall to the floor.

Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele spoke scathingly of a bill that expanded unemployment benefits, food stamps and other programs designed to ease the impact of the worst recession since the 1930s. “The Democrat plan focuses on putting Americans on the public dole,” he said.

The stage set, Republicans and Democrats played out their roles on the big items that followed – the health care bill, a measure to regulate Wall Street, small business legislation and more.

Each time a bill passed over strong opposition, Obama and Democrats hailed their triumphs, Republicans called it more big government spending. Joblessness rose, impervious to political argument.

GOP critics claimed cause and effect, which is easy to argue and all but impossible politically to refute.

Democrats said that they had inherited an economy in worse shape than even they expected and that without their policies, unemployment would be even higher.

“In the six months before I took office, we lost 4 million jobs in America,” Obama said at a fundraising event on Monday. “We lost 750,000 the month I took office, 600,000 the month after that, 600,000 the month after that.”

To sign the stimulus bill 21 months ago, the president went to Denver.

“I don’t want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic troubles,” he said. “But today does mark the beginning of the end.”

At the time he spoke, unemployment stood at 7.6 percent.

In the months since, it has risen by nearly one-third.