ERIC ALBRECHT / THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH Enlarge
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COLUMBUS - He may have been standing in a Columbus backyard, but President Obama Wednesday held Toledo up as an example of a manufacturing city that is reinventing itself.
In town to assure Ohioans that the national economy is slowly recovering, as well as to raise cash for Gov. Ted Strickland and fellow Democrats, Mr. Obama cited Toledo as he made the case that the nation's investments in clean-energy technology are paying off.
"Toledo is actually becoming a leader in this - creating good jobs in areas like building solar panels, wind turbines, advanced-battery manufacturing," Mr. Obama said. "There is a whole series of huge potential manufacturing industries in which we end up being world leaders and, as a bonus, end up creating a more energy-efficient economy that is also good for the environment.''
He took note of new advanced-battery technology that is going into General Motors' much-hyped new Chevrolet Volt hybrid car.
"You combine that with an entire new U.S. auto industry that is cleaner and smarter, has better designs, and is making better products, those are potentially thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs," Mr. Obama said. "The Midwest is really poised to get a lot of those jobs. And a town like Toledo, where you've still got a lot of skilled workers, they are poised to be able to take off on that."
Microphone in hand in town-hall style, the President rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt and took questions from a crowd of about 40 people sitting around picnic tables in the backyard belonging to architect Joe Weithman, his wife, Rhonda, and their two children in a Columbus residential neighborhood. It marked his ninth visit to Ohio since he took office 19 months ago.
The Weithmans benefited on more than one front from the $787 billion economic stimulus package that Mr. Obama pushed through Congress last year. Mr. Weithman's architectural firm benefited from work on a local police station renovation project funded by stimulus money while Ms. Weithman was able to maintain the family's health insurance thanks to stimulus subsidies after losing her job.
Mr. Obama met briefly with the Weithmans inside their $230,000, two-story home before moving to the backyard where Aaron McGreevy, the Weithmans' next-door neighbor and a Toledo native, was waiting. Mr. McGreevy works for an investment firm that handles labor-union pension funds, and he worried aloud to the President about the health of pension systems.
His question sparked Mr. Obama's response about trying to generate new manufacturing jobs in new sectors of the economy.
"The people I work for and the people I grew up with, my family, are in the union marketplace, be it autoworkers or the labor unions that I represent more exclusively now," Mr. McGreevy said after Mr. Obama left. "It's important to me because those are my family and those are my clients. It's a huge section of the middle class that works in the union marketplace."
While talking optimistically about the economy, Mr. Obama was less reassuring on the pension front, noting that many funds suffer from a double-whammy of employer underfunding and risky investments.
"You're going to see pensions in a number of companies that are underfunded,'' he said. "... We're going to have to work with these private-sector companies. Right now, they've become very profitable. … Corporate profits are doing just fine. … One of the things that they need to be doing is shoring up the pension funds that are currently underfunded."
The conversation drifted only briefly from the economy when, as Mr. Obama shook hands with local residents after his talk, a reporter asked him if he had any regrets about involving himself in the controversy over the potential construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero of the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
"No regrets," the President simply replied as he walked away.
Mr. Obama has taken political heat for his position that the center could legally be built on private property located near the former site of the World Trade Center towers. He has also stressed, however, that his belief is separate from the question of whether it would be wise for it to be built there.
Republicans noted that Ohio's unemployment rate hovers at 10.5 percent, a full percentage point above the national average. And a new AP-GfK poll shows that, while Mr. Obama's overall approval rating is at 49 percent, 56 percent of voters disapprove of his handling of the economy.
"There is only one issue in Ohio, and that's jobs," said Mary Taylor, Ohio's state auditor and Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich's running mate. "The President has a lot to answer for, because more than 130,000 jobs have been lost in Ohio since February, 2009, when the President's 'stimulus' spending bill became law and helped explode the national debt to $13 trillion.
"Maybe he's here to privately scold Governor Strickland because progress on jobs in Ohio is zero minus," she said.
Mr. Strickland, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), and U.S. Senate candidate and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher were on hand to welcome Mr. Obama to the residential neighborhood. And they were banking on his star power among loyal Democrats to generate big bucks at a follow-up fund-raiser downtown.
Ticket prices for the event ranged from $100 for standing-room-only space to $2,000 for priority seating for a lunch with the President.
"Polls come and go," Mr. Strickland said. "The President is the President. I'm happy he's here. He's a good leader. I think he's doing a lot of good things for the country, and I'm happy he's come to Ohio to talk about it. … I would like to have him here as much as he can find time to come here."
The Strickland campaign declined to say how much was raised at the event, but it was a sold-out crowd of 600 people in the seats and another 100 standing.
Columbus, considered crucial to Mr. Obama's re-election effort in 2012, was just one part of a three-day, five-state presidential fund-raising tour for Democratic candidates.
After Columbus, Mr. Obama headed to a similar fund-raiser in Miami, Fla.
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He may have been standing in a Columbus backyard, but President Obama on Wednesday held Toledo up as an example of a manufacturing city that is reinventing itself and proof that the nation's investments in clean-energy technology are paying off.