YOUNGSTOWN - This squat gray city in the heart of the nation's old steel corridor became the backdrop yesterday for a presidential pep talk and a declaration that jobs are coming back here, slowly but surely - with or without Republican help.
Skipping yesterday's closely watched primaries in Pennsylvania and two other states, President Obama flew to this economically depressed community for a tour of V&M Star, a French-owned steel-tubing manufacturer that the White House is showcasing as an example of the $787 billion economic stimulus package's success.
In a 25-minute speech to several hundred employees, many in hard hats, the President cited the plant's $650 million expansion, which is expected to create 400 construction jobs and 350 permanent jobs, a doubling of the company's work force. Mr. Obama said more jobs were created nationally in the last month than at any time in the past four years.
It wouldn't have happened if Republicans in Congress had had their way, he said.
"Here's the fact: If the just-say-no crowd had won out - if we had done things that way - we'd be in a deeper world of hurt," Mr. Obama said, referring to GOP efforts to block his stimulus package, health-care reform, and other initiatives.
If nothing had been done, the President said, "The steady progress we are beginning to see across America just wouldn't exist. And neither would the plant you're about to build."
Republicans quickly shot back at Mr. Obama's decision to come to Youngstown to tout his economic policies, given that the community has an unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent, one of the highest in the nation.
In a statement, House Minority Leader John Boehner, of West Chester in southwestern Ohio, said Mr. Obama's visit shows "just how out of touch Washington Democrats are with the harsh realities many communities are facing today. During this time of hardship, the last thing the people of the Mahoning Valley need is more of the President's jobs-killing agenda that is only making matters worse."
He denied Mr. Obama's charge of obstructionism.
Plenty of Ohio Democrats were eager to be seen with Mr. Obama, who has visited the state seven times since he became President. The visit to Youngstown was his second in a year.
Mr. Obama was joined by Gov. Ted Strickland, who is running for re-election, U.S. Reps. Charlie Wilson, John Boccieri, and Tim Ryan, and Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams. Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who is running for the U.S. Senate, did not attend this or another Obama event, citing schedule conflicts.
Mr. Obama, in a hard hat, goggles, and a black flame-retardant jacket, observed ladles pouring molten steel, surrounded by flames and sparks, during the V&M tour. "Unbelievable," he said, "like something out of a movie set."
The President was greeted politely but not with notable enthusiasm. He drew his biggest applause when he noted the resurgence of General Motors Co.'s assembly plant at nearby Lordstown.
"Any fair-minded person would say that if we hadn't acted, more people in the Mahoning Valley, more people in Ohio, and more people across America would be out of work today. We know, for example, that the GM plant over in Lordstown wouldn't be there. GM would be defunct. Instead, it's paying back its debts, turning a profit for the first time in three years, and a third shift is about to come back to work in Lordstown, putting that plant at max capacity."
In an acknowledgment of widespread voter anger with the pace of job growth, the President said, "I know how tough it is out here.
"I know the future too often still feels uncertain. I won't stand here and pretend things are back to normal, or even close. I read too many letters each night from folks who are still hurting or out of work to believe that."
The Obama Administration yesterday proposed a trust fund of more than $800 million to pay for the cleanup of closed GM sites in 14 states, including Ohio.
Mr. Obama, during his visit to Youngstown, called the trust a "landmark agreement to help dozens of communities like Youngstown revitalize and redevelop old, shuttered GM facilities, preparing them for new industries, new jobs, and new opportunity."
Ed Montgomery, who leads the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers, said the fund would clean up nearly 90 properties shuttered in the GM bankruptcy.
He said it is the largest environmental and economic development effort for former manufacturing sites.
The fund will help raze or rehabilitate dozens of manufacturing facilities and offices vacated during GM's government-led bankruptcy last year.
Mr. Montgomery announced the cleanup at a conference sponsored by the White House and the Brookings Institution on the future of automotive communities affected by the industry's downsizing.
One site is in Toledo, and more than half are in Michigan, with others in Indiana and New York. The fund will "take these properties and once again make them productive assets for your towns and communities," Mr. Montgomery said.
The funding comes from $1.2 billion provided by the Treasury Department to wind down the "bad" assets of GM set aside in the company's bankruptcy.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a staff writer at the Post-Gazette.
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