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.