As U.S. recession bites, Ohio hopes fade for Obama
TOLEDO, Ohio (Reuters) - Hope and jobs are in short supply in Ohio eight months after President Barack Obama won the recession-battered state in the 2008 election with promises of a better future.
"People were looking for a savior to get us out of this mess and that's why they voted for Obama," said Jeff Fravor, 55, a retired train conductor on his way to breakfast on the outskirts of Toledo.
"I've nothing against Obama personally, but he's new to the job and 'hope' won't fix this mess."
Candidate Obama delivered his message over and over again in Ohio, a politically diverse battleground state that often decides presidential elections. Obama went back to the state last week with an approval rating below 50 percent.
A Quinnipiac University opinion poll released on July 7 showed the Democratic president's popularity in America's seventh most populous state had fallen to 49 percent from 62 per cent in May. Even worse for Obama, 48 percent said they disapproved of his handling of the U.S. economy, with 46 percent approving.
The reason for the poll drop? Rising unemployment.
The downturn has pummeled Ohio's manufacturing base.
"As jobs have gone away, that has created a true focus here on job creation," said Andrew Doehrel, head of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. "People look at what's been done on a federal level in terms of bailouts and stimulus and they see that this has not equated to anything more than lost jobs in Ohio."
Ohio has not been the state hardest hit by the U.S. recession that began in December 2007, but it is not far off.
Unemployment in the state of 11.5 million people reached 11.1 percent in June, compared with the national rate of 9.5 percent, making it the seventh highest rate in the country. Michigan was first with a rate of 15.2 percent.
TWICE THE UNEMPLOYMENT
Ohio's unemployment has nearly doubled from 5.7 percent in January 2008. That is not a good start for Obama in a state with 20 electoral votes that could be vital for his re-election effort in 2012.
"It's not a surprise Obama's numbers have fallen here and they'll continue to go down as long as jobs keep being lost here," said Jim Rokakis, treasurer for Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland where unemployment hit 10.1 percent in June. "Americans always want a quick fix to problems, but they are going to relearn patience this time round."
Toledo in northwest Ohio has been especially hard hit by the recession, in particular because of the auto industry-related plants that dot the area.
"Obama set expectations too high here and six months later, things haven't got better, so some people are losing hope," said John Johnson, branch manager of the Southeastern Container Inc plant in nearby Bowling Green, which makes plastic bottles for Coca-Cola Co..
Johnson said he had to turn away qualified workers from auto-related plastic companies seeking work. "When people are out of work for a long time, they become very impatient."
Unemployment hit 14.2 percent in June in Toledo, a city of about 315,000 people. Many of the roads in and out of the city are in a poor state of repair and many downtown stores have closed down. Manufacturing brought the city wealth, so plant closures have taken a heavy toll.
"We're not just in a recession here, it's a depression," said Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner. "This downturn has left Ohioans wondering if we've lost our place in the sun."
According to a midyear survey from real estate service company CB Richard Ellis Reichle Klein, Toledo's retail vacancy rate hit a record level of 14.6 percent.
"Everybody is having a hard time just existing right now," said Bob Shelley, 72, who runs Shelley Rubber Stamp & Sign Inc for his father in downtown Toledo. "All businesses have been hit, so everybody's giving everybody a break right now."
Shelley said he felt Obama had an overcrowded agenda.
"He's trying to satisfy everyone at once and he's trying to rush everything through Congress," he said. "But if you rush like that, you're bound to make mistakes."
Angie Carter, 32, a market research analyst in downtown Toledo, said she voted for Obama and he just needed time.
"This is a recession and we live in a manufacturing state," she said on a cigarette break. "It's going to take time to turn it around."
When touting his $787 billion stimulus package earlier this year, Obama cautioned that a recovery would take time.
The president also has time to recover in Ohio if jobs come back. Aware of its importance, he was there last week to tout his healthcare plans. The last candidate who won Ohio but lost the election was Republican Richard Nixon in 1960.
Rokakis said Obama's speech in Cleveland on July 23 was no accident.
"Obama is a smart man and he knows how important Ohio is," he said. "He knows he can't win without us. So I'm sure he'll be back again before long."
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