President Barack Obama took on Donald Trump's Republican campaign pitch to make America great again by declaring Wednesday that his economic policies already have made life better for middle-class voters.
Obama returned to the site of his first presidential visit, Elkhart, Ind., known for its motor home industry, to deliver one of his most pointed political speeches of the year. Voters who are most concerned about their own financial interests have a clear choice in November, Obama said: Democrats.
"If what you really care about in this election is your pocketbook; if what you're concerned about is who will look out for the interests of working people and grow the middle class, then the debate isn't even close," Obama said.
Only a Democratic successor can build on policies that saved cities like Elkhart from economic demise, Obama said. He laced his arguments with some of the populist fire that has become a mainstay of the campaign trail, warning Republicans would pursue policies that benefit the Chinese, big banks and the richest Americans.
Elkhart has seen its unemployment rate drop from 18.9 percent in 2009, Obama's first year in office, to just 4.1 percent in April. The White House views the economic rebound of the city, population 51,000, as a frame for the success of programs such as Obama's stimulus and his health-care law.
"America's economy is not just better than it was eight years ago, it is the strongest, most durable economy in the world," Obama said.
Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has repeatedly seized on the erosion of U.S. manufacturing in his campaign, threatening to impose greater tariffs on foreign trading partners. He has said he would impose additional taxes on Carrier-brand air conditioners manufactured in Mexico, after the United Technologies Corp. subsidiary shuttered an Indiana plant and moved its operations abroad.
"I wanna do the number on Carrier, folks," Trump said in April. "I don't like what they did."
Obama didn't break his silence on the Democratic nomination fight between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Without naming him, Obama used his address to criticize Trump, who has promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico and prohibit immigration by Muslims.
"One thing I can promise you is that if we turn against each other based on divisions of race or religion, then we won't build on the progress we've started," Obama said. "If we get cynical and just vote our fears, or don't vote at all, we won't build on the progress we've started."
At a town hall-style event later, Obama was asked why he doesn't use Trump's name in his remarks. "He seems to do a good job mentioning his own name," Obama said during the town hall, which will air Wednesday night on the PBS NewsHour. "I'll let him do his advertising for him."
"Trump is a more colorful character than some of the other Republican elected officials" but his criticisms of Obama are "entirely consistent" with his party, the president said.
Both Trump and Clinton, his likely opponent, have identified Rust Belt voters as a key constituency in the 2016 presidential election.
Elkhart suffered during the recession when employees were fired at the city's RV manufacturers -- companies there include Thor Industries Inc., Nexus RV and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. subsidiary Forest River -- and after the 2006 closing of a Bayer AG plant that made Alka-Seltzer and Flintstones vitamins.
But a recovery in the RV industry, which has benefited from low gas prices, has led to an economic rebound.
Manufacturing jobs in the city, a five-minute drive from the Michigan border, have more than doubled from 12,000 in 2009 to 26,000 today, though they remain below historical highs. Federally funded projects to repair the city's streets and repave the airport's runway put construction workers back on the job.
Graduation rates at the county's public high schools have jumped from 75 percent to nearly 90 percent, and the number of homes in the process of foreclosure has dropped from 9.5 percent in 2010 to 3.7 percent today.
Indiana is home to many of the white, blue-collar voters gravitating to Trump's populist campaign, who are frustrated that Obama's economic recovery overlooked them and are concerned that globalization threatens their livelihoods. Democratic and Republican voters both said the economy was their top issue according to exit polls during the state's primary election last month.
Obama noted that he lost the state to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and that he is not popular in the Elkhart area.
"I came here precisely because this county votes Republican," he said. "It's going to be voters like you that are going to have to decide on two very different visions of what's going to strengthen our middle class."
Indiana Governor Mike Pence, a Republican, argued in an op-ed published Wednesday in the city's local paper, "The Elkhart Truth", that the recovery there had happened in spite of the president's policies, not because of them. Pence credited state-level tax cuts and deregulation for Indiana's economic improvement.
"We have worked every day to lower the burden of taxes and regulations so businesses large and small can focus on jobs and growth instead of worrying about the burden of their state government," he wrote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, questioned Obama's economic record, saying in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday that the president has harmed economic growth because he's "clogged up the whole system" with regulations.
"The average American is worse off than they were at the end of '07 and considerably worse off than they were when the president took office," McConnell said.
Economic data don't support McConnell. While middle class incomes have been slow to recover since the recession, they are now slightly higher, even adjusted for inflation. Median household income in the U.S. was $57,243 in April, about 0.6 percent higher than when the recession began in December 2007, according to Annapolis, Maryland-based Sentier Research.
The economy was losing jobs at a rate of 791,000 a month when Obama took office, and unemployment was 7.8 percent. The unemployment rate in April was 5 percent, and the economy added 160,000 jobs.
"What they're saying isn't true," Obama said of his Republican critics.
The job for Obama is convincing blue-collar voters who have experienced job losses and contraction in their industries that his programs have modernized the economies of states such as Indiana. The White House argues that Elkhart embodies that turnaround.
It's crucial to the Democratic presidential nominee that voters buy Obama's message in states like Ohio, which the president won by just two percentage points four years ago, and Pennsylvania, where he prevailed by five percentage points. If Trump is able to make inroads in those states, Democrats' presumed advantage in the electoral college may evaporate.
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