Though polls show improving but still tough numbers, Obama might have a better chance next time in this red part of a swing state he carried -- if the only ones voting were the employees that came in before the second shift at the Daimler Trucks plant.
The company that was once laying off workers and on its last legs is now turning out 100 trucks a day and employing over 1,400, with 1,000 hired or re-hired in 2011. Obama – looking relaxed – used the backdrop of big trucks to announce tax credits for fuel efficient vehicles that use advanced technologies and incentives to communities that invest in them.
The president didn’t mention Republican Super Tuesday primary battles, but after calling for an end to subsidies for oil companies, he tweaked “phony election-year promises” – a charge his GOP opponents have been taunting him with – and “some politician trotting out some 3-point plan for $2 gas.” He also offered some medical advice when someone fainted: “You’ve always got to eat before you stand for a long time. That’s a little tip.”
The president wasn’t the only one sharing opinions.
A Detroit refugee, Brandon Quinn, 32, still wears his big “D” Detroit Tigers cap proudly, and rooted for the Lions “when they only won three games a season.” The 10-year Navy veteran wanted to work in the auto industry when he returned home in 2008, but followed his mother to North Carolina to find a job.
Three months ago, he was hired as an inspector at Freightliner. “Things are getting better,” he said. “I’m even hearing good things from my friends in Detroit.”
“I’m not going to lie. I didn’t vote for him,” he said of Obama. “If you asked me four years ago if I would ever vote for him, I would have said, ‘No.’ Now, I can’t say. I want to hear more good things – the deficit and unemployment going down, jobs going up.”
“How can you not respect the guy? He takes the blame for everything, whether it’s his fault or not.” Of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, Quinn, a registered Republican, said he hasn’t formed an opinion one way or the other. “I’m supposed to like him because he’s from Michigan?”
Quinn said he lives pretty frugally — “I make my own salsa; everything comes from my garden except the cilantro.” — and is both cautious and optimistic about the economy. “We’re making 100 trucks a day, the president’s here. I guess I see the brighter side of things.”
When his co-workers get into heated political arguments, he said, “I just sit there and grin.” During the president’s speech, Quinn perked up when Obama talked about incentives for buying the kind of trucks the company makes. “He’s passionate about what he says,” Quinn said of the president. “He’s not stumbling like Romney was when he was talking about Michigan.”
Finding happiness on the line
When a truck comes by her on the line, it’s Molly Costner’s job to tie down the chassis. On Wednesday, her audience was the president. “I was nervous,” she said, “but only at first.” She said he was very nice and remembered her by name when he left his tour.
Costner, 39, said President Obama’s visit is good for business, and “so he knows what we do.” For the six-months-working new hire, the message is “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The Republican is a big supporter of her UAW local and wore a shirt that said so: “If you sell it here, build it here. Buy American. Buy union.”
Costner said she’s turned off by “the mudslinging” in the GOP primary contest. “I like decent people,” she said. “I want to know the president has people’s best interest at heart.” And while she hasn’t yet made up her mind about her vote, she is a definite fan of the first lady. “I think she’s beautiful and classy.”
A lay-off veteran
Travis McDowell, 55, who assembles trucks, has been working at the plant since 1998 – on and off. “I’ve been laid off quite a few times,” he said. He moves around to where the jobs are, and worked for a time at the Cree LED lighting company visited by Obama last June.
The Obama supporter said he works with people, “jokes with them,” but finds they “don’t want to give the president any credit.” He feels the office of the president has been disrespected since Obama’s held it, and recited a litany of examples that started with Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” as the president addressed the Congress.
McDowell sees Obama as having done a lot for the economy, and said he didn’t even mind the bank bailouts. “The truck companies wouldn’t have the money to borrow without it.”
He said some of his colleagues were mad when they first heard the president was coming, until they found out they would be paid even for the time the line was shut down.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3