Frustration, angst in Harrisburg as Obama unveils jobs plan

September 8, 2011

Justin Roberts has a master’s degree in economics but no job.

He’s been applying for work as an economist for months with no success. And when he tried to get hired for warehouse work moving freight, the bosses were convinced that he would quit as soon as a white-collar job came knocking.

President Obama might as well have been talking about Roberts in his speech Thursday night when he described the frustration and angst Americans are feeling in this stagnant economy.

Roberts turned on the television looking for Obama to make a strong push to use the power of the federal government to stimulate the economy, and afterward he felt reassured.

“It was good to see him stand up. He kept saying, ‘Pass this bill,’ ” said Roberts, who is 25 and is making ends meet by working as a bartender at weddings. “The proposal to give tax breaks to companies that hire the [long-term unemployed] will help a whole lot. It will give someone an incentive to hire someone like myself as opposed to plucking someone from another company.”

Dismay at the stalled economy runs deep here, the capital city of a swing state. Although the unemployment rate in the Harrisburg area, at just above 7 percent, is two points below the national average, before the downturn it hovered around 4 percent.

The city has been insulated, in part, by government and military jobs. But the manufacturing core that has been the backbone of this corner of Pennsylvania continues to erode as warehouse and distribution facilities become more mechanized. Young college graduates, steelworkers and small-business owners all feel the pain.

“It’s just dead,” David Black, a Republican and president of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber, said of the slowdown in business. “People just aren’t borrowing. Because of the uncertainty, companies are afraid to hire people. There’s not a lot of optimism. . . . Everyone is wondering where the national economy is going.”

Despite Obama’s call for large-scale infrastructure investments and an extension of payroll tax cuts, Roberts and others here wondered whether the president could get his big jobs plan enacted and whether his proposals could actually become policy.

“I’d like to see more results and less talk,” said Raymond Napoli, who has worked as a maintenance technician at a mill in nearby Steelton for 34 years. “I understand he is up against a wall, but having an unemployment rate of what we’ve got is wrong.”

Although residents here disagree over whether Obama has the right plan, Republicans and Democrats say it is time for Washington to focus on the economy.

Black, who did not find the president’s speech particularly inspiring, wants Obama to stay away from big spending on a stimulus program that provides just temporary relief. “I understand there is some pressure on the president to do something, but that’s not how it works,” Black said, describing himself as a fiscal conservative and political pragmatist. “Encourage the private sector to grow.”

At the same time, Black liked Obama’s proposal for investment in roads, bridges and other long-term infrastructure improvements that could provide a boost and fulfill a vital function of the federal government. Black said he is leery of the tea party’s full-throated opposition to government spending.

“It’s even difficult for the no-new-tax crowd to say, ‘Don’t tax me for investing in infrastructure,’ ” Black said.

And he brought up what has become a common GOP refrain: that Obama needs to strip away regulations that hamper business.

“If they would get out of playing in the regulatory side of things, we’d be happier,” said Black, who often hears complaints about new health-care and banking regulations. “This has been a very activist government.”

Maria Persico, a staunch Obama supporter, runs a small business that trains unemployed professionals who are looking for new jobs. She said Obama should have also proposed more avenues for retraining and education.

“The old industries are changing,” she said.

Her clients, who are often high-level executives, badly need their unemployment benefits to stay afloat, Persico said. Obama proposed extending those for another year. “Some of them are trying very, very hard,” she said. “It is taking a long time to find work.”

The steelworkers around Harrisburg, meanwhile, are wary of any proposals for free-trade deals, saying much of their industry has moved to places overseas where labor is cheaper.

In the 1980s, the old Bethlehem Steel plant, where Napoli works, had 1,200 employees. Now the mill is part of ArcelorMittal, a global steel company, and has about 520 workers. Napoli’s union blames trade agreements. Obama mentioned, in passing, trade deals with Panama, South Korea and Colombia, saying he wanted to see more American products sold overseas “while also helping the workers whose jobs have been affected by global competition.”

“I think Obama has more authority and power than he’s using,” said Napoli, who recently became president of the steelworkers union local. “We need the president to put Congress’s feet to the fire, not just Republicans but both. . . . He’s going to catch the devil whether he does it or he doesn’t. He might as well catch the devil for doing it.”

Black, who in recent months has been running seminars with titles such as “How to Get by in a Tough Economy” and “How to Tread Water Longer and Faster,” said the business community is frustrated with Washington in general. “It’s spending too much time on politics and not enough time on the business of the country,” he said. “Let’s leave the baggage at the door.”

No one here expects that to happen the year before a presidential election. What Roberts is expecting is stiff criticism of Obama. “How is he going to pay for it? That’s the one concerning thing,” Roberts said. “And it concerns me how it is going to get through Congress.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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