Obama Touts Economic Successes to a Tough Crowd

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and President Barack Obama tour a Chrysler plant in Kokomo, Ind.

No state reflects Barack Obama's successes and subsequent struggles like Indiana. Two years after Obama became the first Democrat in four decades to capture the Hoosier State's electoral votes, Indiana was at the heart of the Republican landslide in the midterm elections, a conservative redoubt where the President's 2008 triumph has come to seem more like a fluke than a political turning point. But on Tuesday, in his first domestic trip since the midterms, Obama went to the sleepy town of Kokomo to herald the success of his economic policies.

For Kokomo, the trip was a signpost on the rocky road toward economic recovery. A year after its unemployment rate soared past 20%, Obama said the auto-industry bailouts and the stimulus package have helped kindle a turnaround, driving unemployment down to 12% and transforming what Forbes dubbed one of the fastest dying towns in the nation in 2008 into a beacon for other recession-racked manufacturing regions. At a Chrysler plant where 280 new employees have been brought on since August and 400 laid-off workers have been rehired, Obama sold the auto bailout as a linchpin in his Administration's efforts to spur growth and save jobs. "We're coming back. We're on the move," he said, calling the resurrection of the U.S.'s Big Three automakers and GM's recent stock offering signs of "confidence in a future that seemed so dim just 18 months ago."

The visit was an attempt to spotlight a city that has benefited from both the auto-industry restructuring and the $814 billion stimulus package, two polarizing policies the Administration has had a hard time pitching to a skeptical public. "You remember the voices arguing for us to do nothing," he told a crowd gathered in a plant packed with transmission parts. "We made the decision to stand with you because we had confidence in the American worker, more than anything. And today we know that was the right decision." Along with Vice President Joe Biden, Obama plugged stimulus-backed clean-energy projects and pledged to work with Republicans to "hammer out" a permanent extension to the Bush-era middle-class tax cuts. "We've got to put aside our differences," he said. "The election is over."

That means, however, that another one is on the verge of beginning, and the trip seemed to mark the unofficial kickoff to a re-election campaign whose contours will be shaped by jousting over the economy. In Kokomo, Obama is betting his argument will prove powerful. "For anybody who says our country's best days are behind us," he said, "have them come to Kokomo."

Its triumphant tone notwithstanding, Obama's arrival in Indiana offered a tableau of the challenges of holding together his fraying coalition. Despite the $8.4 billion in stimulus funds sent to the state, Obama has an uphill climb to hold Indiana, where analysts chalked up Republican gains this month partly to the President's sagging popularity. Among the notables joining him when Air Force One landed on the tarmac at an air-reserve base in nearby Peru were Senator Evan Bayh, a retiring centrist, and Representative Joe Donnelly, who won re-election partly by distancing himself from the Administration's legislative successes.

Still, the President, who last visited in April 2008, seemed to savor his return. The so-called Chrysler tour was part of a series of stops at local businesses propped up by stimulus cash. At a firehouse, Obama and Biden ate club sandwiches out of plastic-foam containers with the mayor and several firemen, at least three of whom were laid off and rehired with money from a FEMA grant. On the way through town, where streets were lined with onlookers gawking at the presidential motorcade, Obama and Biden stepped into a sea of screaming children at a local elementary school, shaking hands and snapping pictures.

Before leaving, they ducked into a local bakery purchased in part through a $140,000 stimulus loan. Outside the tiny shop, the President worked one last rope line across from a car wash. As he hobnobbed in the chilly weather, a supporter hollered the signature slogan from the 2008 campaign. "Yes, we can!" Obama said back. A moment later, he slid into his limo to head back to the pressure cooker of a divided capital.