ROME, Ga. — Tom Hackett’s life in the meat business was nearly gone by 4 p.m. on Thursday. What remained behind yards and yards of polished glass were a few scattered remnants of his final inventory — a couple of flank steaks, some shrimp, a lonely half a pound of bologna.
Hackett stood behind the case and lamented that in a few hours he would be closing the store he has run for five years. The weak local economy killed it, he said, and so did the new chain grocery store down the street and the bank that said it couldn’t lend to him anymore. But the biggest culprit, he said, was a man in Washington whose name Hackett could not bring himself to speak.
“I’m going to go hide for two years,” he said, until “he” — President Obama — is on his way out. “It’s sad. People are hurting. There’s no reason for it to be happening, other than what he’s doing.”
If you want to understand the congressional Republicans who have forced confrontations with Obama on the “fiscal cliff,” the government shutdown and the debt ceiling — and whether those lawmakers might feel encouraged to force more confrontations in the future — you need to understand the economic struggles of the Republicans’ home districts.
People in those districts are poorer and more likely to be unemployed than in the nation at large. They have focused their anger about their economic circumstances on Obama, and they want someone, anyone, to make him improve things for them. This is why Hackett praises his congressman, Tom Graves, for voting against the plan to end the budget impasse with Obama that produced the shutdown. “I think he’s great,” he said of Graves. “Somebody’s got to stand up to him.”
Forty-five House Republicans have most consistently pushed their caucus to brinkmanship over the past several years, according to a Washington Post analysis of voting patterns.
On average, the economy in the districts those Republicans represent is significantly worse than it is in the nation at large.
The median income in those districts last year was 7 percent lower than the national median, according to the Census Bureau. The unemployment rate averaged 10 percent. That was almost two percentage points higher than the national rate, and two percentage points higher than the overall rate in the states that contain each district.
The epicenter of that economic distress lies in the Deep South. Four of the congressional districts are in North Georgia. A dozen others are close by in Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and North and South Carolina. Nearly all of them ended 2012 with jobless rates in the double digits.
The Rome metro area has fewer jobs today than it did when the recession ended in 2009. The unemployment rate was 10 percent last year, and it has fallen this year, to 8.8 percent in August, only because so many people have given up looking for work.
The city of 36,000 sits a little more than an hour northwest of Atlanta, near the Alabama and Tennessee borders. It doesn’t look depressed. Construction crews are building big-box stores on the highway into town, and on a recent night, several restaurants in the historic downtown were nearly full for dinner.
But economic statistics show that the metro area hasn’t recouped any of the more than 3,000 jobs it lost during the recession, on net. In interviews across town, workers, executives and small-business owners blame that struggle largely on Obama. Many of them say the Dodd-Frank financial regulations put a chill on local bank lending — and they say it was the president who pushed for the legislation.
And it would be difficult to overstate the outrage expressed about the president’s signature health-care law, the Affordable Care Act.
“There is a lot of frustration over the way the government’s acting” when it comes to the economy, said Roger F. Smith, the chief executive of River City Bank in Rome, one of several people in town who contrasted Obama’s performance in office with the economic success they experienced under President Bill Clinton. “There’s a lack of confidence in the leadership. That starts with the president. It certainly hampers the ability to recover.”
Hackett, 58, called Obama’s entire agenda anti-business: “It’s like, ‘What can we do to kill the economy?’ ” It was his final day of selling to customers at the specialty meat shop he opened in 2008 as a hobby, catering to grilling enthusiasts like himself who want higher-end steaks than the big grocery stores sell.
When the shop opened, Hackett was still primarily a real estate developer, siting and building homes in subdivisions around Rome and Floyd County. He lost that business in the housing crash, and his retirement nest egg with it, and was left with his store to support him. He worked there with his wife, Tippy, and a few employees, including an in-house butcher. Sales were okay at first but began trickling off over the past two years as consumers tightened up in the increasingly weak recovery.
Then, Hackett said, his bank pulled back on lending, citing new federal regulations. Over the summer, he and Tippy dropped their health-care coverage after their insurer raised rates, something the Hacketts blame on the federal health-care law. The opening of a Publix grocery store peeled off more precious customers, and last week, the Hacketts sent an e-mail to customers saying they were shutting down. They made the front page of the Rome News-Tribune.
On their final afternoon, the Hacketts marked all the meat in the case down by $2 a pound. They consoled loyal customers, one of whom cried at the news. They said they aren’t sure what they’ll do for money, but they are quitting the entrepreneurship game, at least until he-who-shall-not-be-named leaves office.
In a back room, their butcher, soon to be laid off, rubbed water over his chopping block, slowly and carefully, wiping the blood away one last time.
Around town, there is plenty of worry that things are about to get worse because of Washington. On Thursday evening, a dozen small-business owners gathered under the pink flourescent lights of a college auditorium to brace themselves for the effects the health-care law could have on their firms.
A pair of lawyers, one from Atlanta and one from Chattanooga, Tenn., walked attendees through an array of PowerPoint slides centered on the legislation’s requirements — and building to what the lawyers called the “pay or play” question: Should owners of firms large enough to fall under the law’s mandates to provide health insurance to their workers comply with it, or should they refuse and pay fines?
The lawyers raised several options, mostly about how to avoid the mandates of the law: cutting back all workers to part time, for instance, or hiring mostly independent contractors. They also noted that such steps could carry legal problems. “Maybe you want to offer coverage,” one of them allowed. “That’s okay.” But then he suggested ways to do it that would still shield the business from federal requirements about what type of coverage to offer.
The next morning, one uninsured produce worker sorted apples into boxes for one of the last times. Donald Rizer, 58, wore a plaid shirt, blue jeans and gloves, and complained of the aching shoulder that he said keeps him from working more than 20 hours a week.
Soon he’ll be out of work. Rizer’s employer, Todd Beam, is shutting down the wholesale produce business his father started 35 years ago. Beam blamed the move on a freeze on bank lending — which he said his bank attributed to the new financial regulations — and on a weak economy, for which he blamed Obama. (There’s also the matter of a crucial school lunch supply contract, which Beam lost to a lower-bidding firm from Atlanta). He was set to lay off three workers and go back to his previous job, driving a commercial truck.
Rizer did not have a new job lined up. He had come down to Rome after leaving a carpet factory several years ago. He needs shoulder surgery but can’t afford insurance. And because of a quirk in the health-care law, and the fact that Georgia declined to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income people like him, Rizer can’t qualify for a subsidy to buy coverage on his own.
When he visited the federal health insurance exchange Web site, he found the cheapest policy available to him cost $200 a month — one quarter of his current salary. “Obama,” he said, “he thinks that he’s helping things, but he ain’t.”
He fished out a bruised green apple and tossed it aside. Only a few boxes were left.