Six years have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of Rhode Island College students and others who have been buying tickets all week to listen to the president. On Friday, Obama returned to the college to talk up the economic recovery and the role of women in the economy.
But the winning streak is definitely over. Just four days before Election Day, Obama made no mention of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate who is in a tight race against Republican Allan Fung, the mayor of Cranston - and a graduate of Rhode Island College. Raimondo, who was in the college field house, said it was not a campaign event.
In a year when most Democrats have distanced themselves from Obama, Rhode Island is a state where he can do little harm to his party's electoral fortunes, and perhaps even some good. He won election here with more than 62 percent of the vote in both 2008 and 2012 and despite dismal approval ratings nationwide, he still has drawing power here.
Yet the job of plugging for Raimondo was left to Michelle Obama, who appeared with the Rhode Island Democrat on Thursday and told a crowd of roughly 1,000 at the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex that their votes could be decisive. A week earlier, Hillary Clinton came to the state to stump for Raimondo.
The president, by contrast, stuck to his theme of women and the economy. Despite new positive figures on unemployment and GDP growth, Obama is still struggling to convince Americans that the U.S. economy is back on track.
"There’s almost no economic measure by which we haven’t made substantial progress," Obama said. "We’re better off than we were." But he nodded toward all those working and helping parents while in school. He said "there are still too many people working too many hours and don’t have enough to show for it."
Rhode Island has been among the states that suffered most during the economic downturn, and it illustrates some of the difficulty Obama has had changing public sentiment as well as economic performance. Those economic issues have also been at the front of the gubernatorial fight.
“For every month but six, Rhode Island has been the highest or in top six in unemployment since 2008,” said Leonard Lardaro, a professor of economics at the University of Rhode Island. “Rhode Island in some places is known more for its unemployment rate than its beautiful beaches."
While the nationwide unemployment rate has dropped under 6 percent for the first time in six years, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate remains at 7.6 percent, albeit well below the 10.8 percent level in early 2012 and or the 9.5 percent level just a year ago.
Employment in the state’s biggest sector – education and healthcare – has been stagnant. Employment has fallen for government, information technology, wholesalers and other services. Jobs have been added in tourism and professional and business services.
And in manufacturing, which added some jobs, wages have lagged. In September 2014, manufacturing production workers earned just $17.86 an hour, down 27 cents from August and down $1.27 since September 2013.
Many Rhode Islanders commute to work in Massachusetts, where the economy is better, Lardaro says.
Who’s to blame? Lardaro blames state policies on taxes and regulations more than he does Obama administration policies.
In an interview, Raimondo said that “Rhode Island’s economy is weak because Rhode Island’s leaders have let people down. We lost our manufacturing base…and our leaders didn’t reposition the economy for new jobs.”
The employment picture has helped drag down public sentiment. August was the first month in a year in which the state current conditions index -- an index of 12 key economic indicators pertaining to housing, retail sales, fiscal pressures, the employment situation, and labor supply -- was higher than the same month a year earlier. Lardaro says that is a sign that the recovery is finally broadening out and including some people who had been left out until recently.
But will Obama get credit? Probably not. Yale economist Ray Fair has constructed a model that says unless there has been vigorous growth for at least three consecutive quarters, Americans will not feel entirely reassured about the durability of the recovery.
Obama today highlighted the fact that during the last two quarters the economy grew at a 4.1 percent annual pace – the fastest six-month period of growth in more than 10 years. The United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan and every other advanced country combined, Obama said in his campaign rally for Mike Michaud in Portland, Maine.
Yet Obama hasn’t gotten a political jolt yet. The same thing happened to former President George H.W. Bush. Growth in his final year in office galloped at a brisk rate of more than 4 percent, but prior years of stagnation had come to dominate voters’ thinking about the White House then.
“Timing is tricky,” Fair said. “In 1992 the economy was not that bad, but people were very pessimistic about the economy.”
Rhode Island College also highlights the financial burdens students bear these days, as a result of both tuition and the state of the economy.
The economy also poses special problems for students. Laura Hart, the college’s director of communications and marketing, said that one year after graduation, 88 percent of students were either employed or pursuing additional education. However, 43 percent of students do not complete their degrees and they were not included in that figure. How many of them are employed is unclear.
Students at Rhode Island College are typical of students across the country: They are suffering from large debt loads. Forty-six percent of Rhode Island College students are receiving an average of $4,465 in federal funds, enough to cover more than half of in-state tuition and fees, according to an online college guide.
The Institute for College Access and Success says that in 2012, 80 percent of Rhode Island College students graduated with debt, and that 36 percent of students, a relatively high proportion, were receiving Pell grants, part of a federal program to assist needy students.
But the White House said that Obama chose Rhode Island College because he wanted to discuss women’s role in the economy and the college has a high percentage of female students. The president on Friday morning held a roundtable discussion with a small all-female group that included small business owners, a student, a middle-class working mother, a speech pathologist and the president of Rhode Island College. The college is also home to the Rhode Island Center of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, which supports STEM education for students from across the entire state.
Obama said he also believes that raising the minimum wage will have a bigger impact in a state like Rhode Island where many people work for low wages. Raimondo said that she favored raising the minimum wage because two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women. The president also noted that Rhode Island is one of just three states with a law requiring paid family leave.
One of the controversies that seems to have captured the frustration of Rhode Islanders over business and job creation is the collapse of 38 Studios, a video game business started by retired baseball pitching star Curt Schilling and named for his jersey number. The business went bankrupt, but only after the state of Rhode Island provided it with generous subsidies and financing. According to the Providence Journal, the state is the largest creditor for principal, interest and fees connected to a $75 million loan guarantee arranged by the state’s economic development corporation.
Schilling and three other former executives reached a proposed settlement in bankruptcy court this week.
The company’s failure has become a campaign issue, with Fung charging that Raimondo didn’t oppose the state financing. Raimondo has responded that she did oppose the deal with 38 Studios because it was risky and because it would be better to spread the state’s job creation money around among 20 to 30 companies as venture capitalists do. The $75 million loan guarantee for 38 Studies was the majority of the state’s $125 million job creation loan guaranty program.
Fung says he would be a better economic manager. He says that in Cranston he cut operating expenses, created a thousand new jobs and “negotiated pension reform with two major unions by replacing the costly defined benefits pension system with a defined contribution plan for new employees.”
Raimondo has clashed with many traditional pro-Democrat unions because as state treasurer she has slashed pension benefits the state could no longer afford. In Rhode Island’s case, pensions for the state’s 21,000 retired public employees were soaking up 10 cents of every dollar of state tax revenue; that would have risen to 20 cents in just a few years.
Still, Raimondo recently won the endorsement of some major unions, including those representing hotel and restaurant workers, transit workers, and corrections officers.