By Mark Niquette
With the economy struggling and polls showing his party poised for losses in the November election, President Barack Obama returned to battleground Ohio yesterday and said the choice voters had when they elected him in 2008 isn’t much different than the one they face this fall.
Recalling his last swing through the Buckeye State in the final days of the 2008 campaign, Obama told a friendly crowd of about 800 at Cuyahoga Community College’s west campus that the nation can either continue with Democratic policies or return to Republican tax, trade and other policies that “led to this mess in the first place.”
“A lot has changed since I came here in those final days of the last election, but what hasn’t is the choice facing this country,” Obama said in a 47-minute speech drawing sharp distinctions between the two parties. “It’s still fear versus hope; the past versus the future. It’s still a choice between sliding backward and moving forward. That’s what this election is about.”
Obama made eight references to House Minority Leader John Boehner, the West Chester Republican who delivered a speech in Cleveland last month bashing Obama’s handling of the economy. Boehner likely will become speaker next year if the GOP takes control of the House.
The president ridiculed support by Boehner and the GOP for tax cuts, “especially for millionaires and billionaires,” and for other policies during the past decade that he said have left middle-class Americans “treading water.”
Instead, Obama proposed allowing companies to write off 100 percent of their spending on new plants and equipment through 2011, making a research-and-development tax credit for businesses permanent and creating a $50 billion program to rebuild roads, railways and airports.
The president also strongly reiterated his support for making tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush permanent for those earning $250,000 or less a year, while allowing cuts for those earning more to expire at the end of the year. He said the nation can’t afford the $700 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy.
Just as he did during a visit to Columbus three weeks ago, Obama argued that the federal stimulus package, health-care overhaul and other initiatives have stabilized the economy. Although Obama acknowledged that job growth has been “painfully slow,” he criticized Republicans for opposing his initiatives while offering “no new ideas.”
“And so people are frustrated and they’re angry and they’re anxious about the future,” Obama said. “I understand that. I also understand that in a political campaign, the easiest thing for the other side to do is to ride this fear and anger all the way to Election Day.”
In an interview Wednesday with The Cincinnati Enquirer editorial board, Boehner dismissed Obama’s criticisms.
“Listen, this election is going to be a referendum on their job-killing policies and their stimulus spending,” Boehner told The Enquirer. “And they’re desperate to change the subject any way they can.”
Boehner told the newspaper that he intends to repeal or block the health-care overhaul approved earlier this year if he becomes speaker.
Earlier Wednesday, Boehner also said that Congress should freeze all tax rates for two years and should cut federal spending to the levels of 2008, before the deep recession took hold.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope the president’s visit will help close the “enthusiasm gap” with Republicans in Ohio, where Gov. Ted Strickland is locked in a tough re-election fight against Republican John Kasich and several Democratic members of Congress face daunting re-election prospects.
Democrats who attended the invitation-only event with the president in Parma said they’re confident there is still time to reach voters anxious or angry about the economy before the election.
“I think a lot of people are not yet engaged,” said Carol Roe, 61, of Cleveland Heights. She’s a registered nurse and lawyer who is volunteering for Lt. Gov Lee Fisher’s U.S. Senate campaign.
It seems unlikely that Congress will quickly pass any of the proposals that Obama announced.
Andrew Doehrel, president and chief executive of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said that although the tax measures would be welcomed, they aren’t likely to have a major impact.
“Putting this in place is not going to turn on the spigots for small businesses in Ohio,” Doehrel said.
Still, given the fact that not much is likely to change in the economy before the election, Obama’s focus on a long-range strategy makes political sense, said John Green, a University of Akron political-science professor.
“This is a chance to promote a positive agenda and energize activists and Democratic voters,” he said.
Dispatch Senior Editor Joe Hallett contributed to this story.