President Barack Obama will return Wednesday to the site of his first presidential trip, an Indiana city buoyed by a resurgent motor home industry, for an economic victory lap and to argue for a Democratic successor.
Elkhart, Ind., 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 51,000-population city as a frame for the success of programs such as Obama's stimulus and his health-care law.
Obama plans to use the visit to argue that only a Democratic successor can build on policies that saved cities like Elkhart from economic demise. Both the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and his likely opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, have identified Rust Belt voters as a key constituency in the 2016 presidential election.
Obama believes "it's important for the American people to understand what sort of policies have made our recovery possible," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
"He understands that his successor will have some important decisions to make about whether or not we are going to build on this progress, are we going to build on this momentum, or are we going to tear it down? And there is a pretty clear choice to be made if you take a look at the policies that are being advocated by the two parties," Earnest said.
Elkhart suffered during the recession when employees were fired at the city's RV manufacturers -- companies there include Thor Industries, 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 a manufacturing 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.
Obama isn't expected to explicitly discuss the presidential candidates, or break his silence on the Democratic nomination fight between Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Still, he made clear in an e-mail to supporters that he planned to cast his remarks against a political backdrop.
'Cusp of Resurgence'
"Thanks to the hard work of people in Elkhart and in communities across the country, America has recovered from crisis and we're on the cusp of resurgence," Obama said. "That's why I'm going back to Elkhart next Wednesday -- to highlight the economic progress we've made and discuss the challenges that remain."
Indiana is home to many of the white, blue-collar voters gravitating to the populist campaign of Donald Trump, 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.
That fear is particularly acute among some of the state's biggest businesses. Statewide, nearly 30 percent of the gross domestic product comes from manufacturing, primarily cars and steel, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Trump 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."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, questioned Obama's economic message, saying in an interview with CNBC 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.
The job for Obama is persuading 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 Clinton 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.
Elkhart also holds particular sentimental value to the president, who has repeatedly visited the northern Indiana town throughout his political career.
He campaigned there as a candidate and then as the presumptive Democratic nominee during his first White House bid in 2008. The city was Obama's first visit as president after Indiana, traditionally a conservative stronghold, narrowly vote for him. Later in 2009, Obama again visited the state and noted that Navistar International Corp., with a factory near Elkhart, had secured a federal grant under the stimulus to develop battery-powered electric vehicles.
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