Assessing Obama's promises of jobs in a hub of manufacturing

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010; 7:29 PM

ELYRIA, OHIO -- The last time Barack Obama came to this struggling blue-collar city was during the 2008 presidential primary campaign, when he told workers at the National Gypsum drywall factory that if elected he would pursue a "job-creation agenda."

Now, as President Obama returns here Friday, the drywall plant is closed, its 58 jobs victims of a steep downturn in housing construction.

His day-long visit to the nation's withering manufacturing heartland is intended to show distressed and skeptical Americans that Obama is doing all he can to create jobs. For the president, this is an increasingly urgent mission, as the nation's anxiety around joblessness threatens to undercut his ambitious domestic agenda. There was more bad news Thursday as jobless claims unexpectedly spiked.

And a close look at Lorain County reveals the limits and unintended consequences of some of his signature policies. Those limitations underscore the difficulty even a president faces pushing against the hidden hand of the global economic marketplace.

The National Gypsum plant closed in May 2008, eight months before Obama moved into the White House. Pummeled by the housing downturn, the factory joined a decades-long exodus that has seen thousands of good jobs disappear at the heavy-manufacturing firms that once powered this region's economy.

In recent decades, one major company after another -- American Shipbuilding, U.S. Steel, Ford Motor -- has closed or severely cut its workforce in Lorain County. In some cases, production was moved overseas, or to non-union areas in the South, where labor is cheaper. Other times, firms were forced to fold in the face of foreign competition.

"I don't think we can replace the jobs that have left," said Michael Winiasz, president of Advanced Design Industries, a 40-year-old Lorain County firm that designs and builds custom machinery. "We decided 30 or 40 years ago to allow this migration of jobs. We have to do something to change that."

Officials here have fought back with one job creation idea after another. The unions and community college have spent millions in federal money retraining displaced workers. Firms willing to create jobs receive tax breaks.

The $787 billion economic stimulus plan enacted by Obama last February has brought at least $33 million to Lorain County. Among other things, the money has paid for youth summer jobs, Head Start slots, housing vouchers, road repairs, home weatherization projects and the transformation of a historic railroad station into a new transportation center.

Separately, German chemical giant BASF has won a $24 million Department of Energy grant to begin production here of a key component in the next-generation lithium-ion batteries that power hybrid and electric cars.

Local leaders have long promoted the idea of creating a wind farm on Lake Erie. Area workers in the underused plants that dot this region's landscape could manufacture turbines. Others could be trained to erect and service them. "That's what we're banking on. That's our game changer," said Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo.

But that idea is burdened by concerns about its economic viability, and the ability of the electrical grid to integrate huge amounts of wind power, making it appear years from fruition. In any case, many banks, still reeling from the financial crisis, are reluctant to fund such ventures.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company