WASHINGTON - In an election season when the economy is king, the central debate between President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney comes down to what is enough. Enough growth in the economy. Enough job creation. Enough help for those still struggling to get back on their feet.
Obama travels to two Midwest states at the epicenter of that debate, hard-hit Ohio and Michigan, on Wednesday to highlight his economic policies and place them in pointed contrast to the sharp budget-cutting proposals of House Republicans — and by extension Romney.
In Ohio, Obama will visit a successful job-training program of the type that the White House says would face steep cutbacks in federal financing under the House-passed budget, which Romney supports. And in Michigan, the president will scoop up more campaign cash to help him combat Romney's efforts to frame his presidency as an economic failure.
Beyond job training, the president is making the broader case that while more remains to be done to boost the economy, he's successfully brought the country back from the brink of financial collapse and done what he should to help Americans weather the storm. For Obama, there's no more critical place to make that argument than Ohio, always an electoral battleground, and a general election bellwether since 1980.
Romney, for his part, never misses an opportunity to blame Obama for what he labels as failed economic policies and bloated government, and to argue that the president's had his chance and now it's time for him to move on. He criticizes a jumble of "federal workforce training programs, 49 reporting to eight different agencies."
On Wednesday, the likely GOP nominee will leap over a few pages on the political calendar and deliver an early "prebuttal" in Charlotte, N.C., to the president's speech to the Democratic National Convention in that town come September. It was sure keep up the drumbeat of criticism of Obama on the economy, jobs and taxes.
Obama's campaign, meanwhile, started running its first Spanish television ads aimed at rallying support among Hispanics, an increasingly important voting bloc. The four television spots each feature an Obama supporter talking about the president's education policies, including improving Head Start centres that serve over 362,000 Hispanic children and increasing funding for Pell Grants to help nearly 2 million Hispanic students pay for college.
The ads will air in Colorado, Nevada and Florida, political battleground states with growing Hispanic populations.
In Elyria, Ohio, Obama will meet with unemployed workers-turned-students participating in training programs at Lorain County Community College, where he'll also address students and graduates. The White House said that under the House-passed budget, employment and training programs of that kind would cut back sharply, eliminating services to 425,000 adult workers nationally in 2013 and 1.1 million in 2014. The president has kept up a drumbeat of criticism of the House-passed budget as a sign of what would happen if Republicans were in charge, although the budget plan is sure to die in the Senate.
In Michigan, Obama will attend two fundraisers for his campaign, one of them at the same Henry Ford Museum where Romney in 2007 launched his unsuccessful bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.
The economy has taken a nosedive and turned around again in the five years since then. Romney, too, has fallen and risen again.
And now Obama and Romney are jockeying for the advantage on the economy, and neither has the clear edge.
In a Pew Research Center poll released this week, voters listed the economy and jobs as the top issues as they decide whom to support for president. Those who said the economy and jobs would be very important to their vote divided their support almost evenly between Obama and Romney.
Obama points to steady economic progress on his watch, and suggests his GOP rival would dismiss the needs of struggling Americans to implement policies favouring the wealthy.
Romney's campaign, for its part, on Tuesday mocked the Obama economy as "stuck in neutral" — just as NASCAR champions were visiting the White House.
Each candidate has material to work with in making his economic case: Nationally, the unemployment rate has dropped from 9.1 per cent last August to 8.2 per cent in March, the lowest since about the time Obama took office. But job growth has been weak, millions of people remain unemployed, and improvements in hiring haven't translated into higher salaries for those who are working.
Ohio's jobless rate was 7.6 per cent in February 2012, down from 8.9 per cent a year earlier and lower than the national average. In Michigan, unemployment fell to 8.8 per cent in February, down from 10.7 per cent a year earlier and a peak of 14.2 per cent in August 2009. Many in the state are benefiting from the turnaround in the auto industry fostered by Obama, but there is plenty of ongoing economic pain.
Jim Ruvolo, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman now working as a political consultant, said the recovery of the auto industry has also helped boost the economy in the northern part of his state, giving Obama a strong argument for re-election, but many Ohio voters still feel that while the economy is getting better, "it's not there yet."
"The truth is, if we were still where we were two years ago, Obama wouldn't even be in the race," he added. "The thing would be over."
The improving picture in states like Ohio makes Romney's effort to paint Obama's presidency as an economic failure more challenging.
But Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Maloney said his state's Republican governor and legislators are the ones who deserve any credit for economic progress in the state. And he said that with Obama's frequent visits to Ohio — this will be his fourth in four months, and the 20th of his presidency — Ohio voters are starting to see that the president's economic pronouncements are "more style, less substance, and that's why he finds himself in a precarious spot."
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and David Espo contributed to this report.
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