By Phillip Elliot
LORDSTOWN, Ohio — President Barack Obama’s decision to help America’s automakers could end up being what helps drive him back into the White House.
Some 850,000 jobs in this critical battleground state are tied to autos and Obama’s campaign constantly reminds voters they’d be jobless if not for the decision to inject taxpayer dollars into General Motors and Chrysler.
However, the move has not translated into automatic support for the president, even in areas that depend on the industry. Republican Mitt Romney also is pitching these voters hard with his message that Obama hasn’t balanced Washington’s checkbook the same way voters must.
One in eight jobs in Ohio can be linked to the auto industry — whether it’s working on a factory floor or selling groceries to plant workers. The presidential race’s outcome could boil down to whether voters interpret Obama’s move as saving Detroit or bailing it out. But like other flashpoints in this rough campaign, there is little middle ground between the versions of events and what it means for voters’ neighbors.
“I couldn’t imagine what Lordstown would be,” said Brian Axiotis, a 37-year-old Obama supporter who works in information technology and lives in nearby Newton Falls. “A lot of folks would lose their houses. Consider the mess that would have resulted. It’d be a ghost town all over the area.”
Since its restructuring, the General Motors plant in this town of 4,000 people southeast of Cleveland has added a third shift — and 1,200 new workers with it — to produce the popular compact Chevy Cruze. GM has pledged $220 million in updates to the factory and to keep the 4,500 workers, suggesting this town in the former steel-heavy Mahoning Valley has some stability ahead.
Romney volunteer Frank Perrotta still finds Obama’s decision to loan automakers billions a misuse of public dollars. Between calls to voters at Romney’s office in Stow, he shakes his head when talking about the government’s move to prevent the collapse of GM and Chrysler. The bailout began in 2008 under Republican George W. Bush and Obama extended it.
“I have to run my business responsibly. No one is coming to bail me out if I get into trouble,” said Perrotta, a 63-year-old Hudson resident who runs a medical imaging business that employs nine workers. “The bailout was just not fair.”
Romney opposed using direct government money to save the car companies in a 2008 op-ed piece in The New York Times, titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Romney preferred a managed bankruptcy, without direct federal money, but was open to post-bankruptcy loan guarantees from Washington. He has maintained that the rescue — as it was executed — was unfair, unnecessary and political payback to labor unions.
“If we had taken your advice, Gov. Romney, about our auto industry, we’d be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China,” Obama said in Monday’s presidential debate.
His statement sparked one of the most contentious moments of the evening, with the two interrupting and arguing over one another about what impact Romney’s idea would have had.