President Obama just can’t stay away from North Carolina, though after giving him hope and a victory in 2008, the fickle state cozied back up to the GOP in 2012. Being wooed with a national convention and a stream of visits from surrogates wasn’t quite enough to stem a statewide swing from blue to red. Yet there the president was on Wednesday, the day after his State of the Union speech, selling his ideas on manufacturing and the economy at the Linamar engine factory near Asheville, N.C.
Playing hard to get is irresistible.
It was the perfect testing ground for the economic proposals he has said would bolster the middle class and restore, in part, American manufacturing jobs. The list Obama wants to guide through Congress includes raising the minimum wage, increasing job training and using federally financed incentives to duplicate scenarios similar to Linamar’s. The White House said the company set up shop in a closed plant, bringing new life and jobs to a community that needed both.
“I want to partner with local leaders to help you attract new investment,” President Obama said. “Because once that investment starts coming in, things can start turning around.” It’s a message of renewal and rebirth that fits in with the president’s Tuesday night speech, as he tries to set policies and accomplishment in his second term that will leave a legacy.
With the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, western North Carolina is gorgeous. The president’s family has vacationed there, and he hinted in his Wednesday speech that he’s considering following the example of the many retirees who find the region attractive. And he can’t resist the barbecue, with the White House reporting orders to go. But it’s more than that, of course. Anywhere a politician travels is by definition political.
North Carolina may not be the largest state, but it has a mix of urban, suburban and rural. Though unemployment, at 9.2 percent, is higher than the national rate, opportunities continue to draw new residents every day, leaving other states without North Carolina’s promise. (I didn’t exactly flee New York City more than a decade ago when I came for a job. But though that particular job is gone, I’m still in Charlotte.)
America’s diversity, so evident in the turnout in the last presidential election, is on view in North Carolina, where African Americans make up more than 20 percent of the population, and the growing population of Hispanics and other groups have shifted the traditional and historical balance of black and white.
Not counting the 2008 presidential campaign, when candidate Obama visited so many times he almost qualified for in-state tuition and a license embossed with the Wright Brothers’ plane, President Obama has set several important policy speeches in North Carolina. He has touted biotechnology training at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem and last year posed with the big trucks at a Daimler plant in Mount Holly.
But despite spots like the Research Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, full of the highly educated professionals that crowded lawns with Obama signs, and a personality and profile that seems close to its Virginia neighbor, the state became more of a Republican stronghold in 2012.
The GOP is flexing its muscles in Raleigh, with Gov. Pat McCrory in the statehouse and strong majorities in the legislature. Republicans are advancing measures that would block components of the federal health-care law, including expansion of Medicaid, and reduce unemployment benefits, all to curb costs. McCrory, for 14 years the Charlotte mayor, has also been getting entwined in high-profile spats over transportation funding, among other issues, with current Mayor Anthony Foxx, the second African American to hold the position and a political ally of President Obama.
Then there’s the prospect of a 2014 Senate race, with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan fighting to retain the seat she won in 2008, and Obama surely supporting her in the face of national Republican money and effort to win a majority that eluded the party the last two cycles.
It’s no wonder President Obama is drawn to North Carolina, the country in miniature. With not nearly as much at stake, I visit Asheville every chance I get. Though I didn’t catch the president’s Wednesday stop, I’m sure I’ll have another chance when he no doubt returns.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3