Taking his jobs message on the road

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

SCHNECKSVILLE, PA. -- With his popularity slowly eroding as the nation's unemployment rate has risen, President Obama spent Friday reassuring people in Pennsylvania's struggling Lehigh Valley that his administration is focused on stemming the nation's jobs crisis.

The visit here marked the start of what the White House is calling a Main Street tour, aimed at connecting the president's economic policies to workaday Americans, many of whom feel like they have yet to benefit from them.

One day after hosting a high-profile jobs forum at the White House, Obama traveled here to visit a job training center and a local pet food plant and to hold a town hall meeting at Lehigh Carbon Community College to discuss his ideas for stemming unemployment and growing the economy.

During his remarks at the college, Obama struck a populist theme, telling several hundred people packed into a gymnasium that all of his economic policies -- from the financial and auto bailouts to health-care reform -- are aimed at stabilizing the economy and creating jobs. "I didn't [undertake] them because they were popular or gratifying -- they weren't. . . . But I did them because they were necessary to save our country from an even greater catastrophe," he said.

Obama also said that he planned to summon the nation's top bankers back to the White House this month to press them to loosen credit for small-business owners and others on the front lines of job creation. "And part of what our message to the banks is, the taxpayers were there for you to clean up your mistakes," he said. "You now have a responsibility to be there for the community now that we're bearing the brunt of a lot of these problems that you caused."

Buoyed by news that the nation's jobless rate had unexpectedly ticked down to 10 percent, Obama appeared upbeat as he paced the speaker's platform, microphone in hand, responding to several questions from the audience.

Obama said that he empathized with the plight of the more than 15 million Americans who are jobless, invoking his family to drive home the point. "I know times are tough. Michelle and I were talking the other day -- there are members of our families that are out of work," Obama said. "We're not that far removed from struggling to pay the bills."

It seemed to go over well. "I feel like he is reinspiring us," said June Kennedy, a retired educator who came to the town hall event from New Jersey.

Aides said the Allentown area was chosen for the start of Obama's tour because while it has struggled with unemployment through the recession, it also has a history of remaking its economy. "Folks are out of work here, but they have not been as hard hit as some other areas of the country," said Ed Pawlowski, mayor of Allentown.

The city and its environs were once a hub of heavy manufacturing. But the mills went into a deep decline in the 1980s, a hard time immortalized by Billy Joel, who sang: "Well, we're living here in Allentown and they're closing all the factories down." But the region also has renewed itself, most recently through the spread of health-care enterprises and small businesses, which account for the vast majority of local employers. Earlier this year, a casino opened in a former steel plant.

"It is not that Allentown has done extremely well, but it has held its own," said Sean C. Safford, a University of Chicago researcher who has written a book comparing Allentown to Youngstown, Ohio. "What Allentown represents is a place where companies have learned to adapt and compete in a global marketplace."

"This is a really big day for Allentown," said Dave Reichard, an electrician who heard Obama. "People are looking for any sign of hope and the president gives them that. He needs to do more to get his message out, because people are starting to have doubts about his program."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company