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Published: Tuesday, 1/26/2010

Mr. Strickland's dilemma

Talk about a tough crowd.

More Ohioans approve than disapprove of the overall job Gov. Ted Strickland is doing, according to a new poll sponsored by The Blade and other Ohio newspapers.

Yet if this year's gubernatorial election were held today, the same poll suggests, Mr. Strickland would lose to his likely Republican challenger, former congressman John Kasich.

These findings illustrate the dilemma that confronts the first-term Democratic governor as he prepares to deliver his annual State of the State address today: How do you insulate yourself from political blame for the state's dismal economy, which Ohioans identify as the concern that will determine their votes in November more than all other issues combined?

At the same time, how do you persuade enough voters that you can positively influence the economy, create jobs, and help get stagnant incomes rising again to win their support for another term?

Many of the good-paying automotive and other manufacturing jobs that allowed Ohio to prosper in past years are gone. There is little that the governor, or anyone else, can do to bring them back.

So talk inevitably turns to diversifying the state's economy, to preserving and attracting alternative-energy, health-care, "green," and high-tech jobs, as well as small businesses. Mr. Strickland is likely to discuss initiatives along these lines during today's address. But Ohioans who need jobs today probably will have little patience for promises of long-term improvement.

Mr. Kasich hopes to seize on such discontent in his campaign to unseat the governor. He speaks of Mr. Strickland's "failed" leadership, especially on economic issues.

On that count, the newspaper poll offers the governor a silver lining: Voters hold him less responsible for Ohio's deep recession than a long list of usual suspects: former President George W. Bush, Wall Street, Congress, President Obama, and Mr. Strickland's predecessor as governor, Republican Bob Taft. But that may be cold comfort, since Ohioans who took part in the poll are far more likely to disapprove than approve of the way Mr. Strickland is handing economic issues now.

The poll findings include broader good news. Even as voters say the economy continues to get worse, and as the state faces a massive budget deficit next year, Ohio isn't succumbing to tea-party extremism.

Sensibly, most of the Ohioans who were polled understand that the state will have to balance its budget with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases rather than rely on either approach alone. At the very least, this is not the time for political schemes that would make Ohio's tax system less efficient, balanced, and fair, such as Mr. Kasich's proposed phaseout of the state income tax.

The poll suggests that Governor Strickland is somewhat less popular in northwest Ohio than he is statewide. Toledo area residents can be expected to listen with special interest, and skepticism, to today's speech.

The election is more than nine months away - an eternity in political terms. Governor Strickland has plenty of time to burnish his poll numbers, especially if the state's economy turns around appreciably this year.

Of course, last week's Senate election in Massachusetts was supposed to be a slam dunk for Democrats, too.



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