With little he can do to jolt an economy stuck in neutral, President Obama urged people to be patient and to resist the temptation to “turn cynical” in the face of the bleakest job market in decades.
Obama appeared at an Alcoa plant in eastern Iowa on Tuesday to draw attention to a manufacturing revival that is adding precious private-sector jobs.
He punctuated his brief visit with references to his victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, a result that established him as a contender for president. But the appearance also underscored the extent to which his message has changed: Obama, the candidate who promised an American renewal, returned as a president saddled with an economy that has left more than 14 million looking for work.
Imbuing his speech with a subdued optimism, Obama said that under his watch, 2 million private-sector jobs were created in the last 15 months, many in the manufacturing sector.
“But for a lot of Americans, those numbers don’t matter much if they’re still out of work, or if they have a job that doesn’t pay enough to make the mortgage or pay the bills,” Obama said. “So we’ve got more work to do.... The problems that we developed didn’t happen overnight. We’re not going to solve them overnight either. But we will solve them.”
The Alcoa plant produces aerospace and military parts, including the aluminum used in Air Force One’s wings, and was chosen to highlight improvement in the manufacturing sector. The plant employs 2,200 people, having rehired all those who were laid off during the recession — and more.
“And in fact, you guys are telling me that you’re thinking about hiring some more folks in the near future,” Obama said. “That’s worth applauding.”
Obama typically goes on the road to talk about the economy once a week — usually to a key electoral state — and finding the right message is a constant challenge. Reciting a grim list of statistics could further erode consumer confidence. But Obama faces other risks if he focuses solely on favorable signs — a temptation for a president seeking reelection.
“I would argue for less touting of accomplishments that don’t ring completely true to people,” said Henry Cisneros, who was housing secretary under President Clinton. “There’s no way you can jawbone them into a belief that things are better than they can see with their own eyes.”
Obama’s trip to Iowa coincided with a media sensation playing out on the Republican side: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s appearance in Pella for the premiere of a movie about her career.
At the top of his speech, Obama also mentioned the many Republicans who were campaigning in Iowa; Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann kicked off her presidential campaign in Waterloo on Monday.
Obama is familiar with Iowa’s political rhythms. In 2008, he focused many of his campaign’s resources on Iowa, piqued voters’ interest, and sent the presumptive front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to a third-place finish.
Much has changed in three years. Iowa Republicans have eaten into the Democrats’ registration advantage, and picked up the governor’s seat and a majority of state Assembly seats. When Obama was sworn in Iowa had 111,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but the advantage is down to 36,000.
Although Obama easily carried Iowa in the 2008 general election, the state is considered a tossup in November 2012.
“This is going to be a jobs election, and it’s going to become painfully obvious that the only job the president is interested in saving is his own,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Tuesday in a call with reporters.
In the few hours he was in Iowa, Obama looked to capture some of the flavor of the last campaign.
He made an unannounced visit to a Bettendorf restaurant owned by a woman he had met at a town hall meeting in August 2008.
Cynthia Friedhof had told Obama about her high-calorie meat-and-cheese concoctions. Obama promised to visit and showed up Tuesday, to the delight of Friedhof and the lunch crowd.
“How are you doing? We came to order some food,” Obama said. He then held up a gargantuan cinnamon roll.
“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to eat one of these.”
Mehta reported from Bettendorf, Nicholas from Washington.