APEX, N.C. — In this tiny town of 37,000, historic Salem Street still teems with charming mom-and-pop restaurants and stores, such as the Rusty Bucket, that sell country-themed knickknacks. The median family income is $102,000. The town was named a few years ago as the 14th best place to live in the nation.
On Wednesday, President Obama arrived here to tour a manufacturing business and tout the benefits of his American Jobs Act, which the president has said would create jobs and lift economically depressed areas.
Obama’s decision to visit Apex, which on first glance appears to have escaped the worst of the economic downturn, was a tacit acknowledgment that his $447 billion jobs package is as much a political gambit as a policy proposal.
Since announcing his plan last week, Obama has kicked off a national sales tour with trips to three crucial battleground states that he won in 2008 — including Virginia last week and Ohio on Tuesday.
The political landscape looks increasingly challenging this year in places like North Carolina, where unemployment stands at 10.1 percent. Republicans won majorities in both chambers of the state legislature last year for the first time in 114 years. And Obama’s statewide approval ratings have plummeted to 43 percent, according to one recent poll.
In Apex, frustration with the president was palpable behind the Mayberry facade of American flags and brick buildings in the historic downtown strip. Some business owners said they have lost their homes, and others said earnings have dropped by as much as 40 percent.
“A gentleman came in yesterday and started talking trash about Obama,” said Brenda Steen, executive director of the Apex Chamber of Commerce. “He hired a new employee last week, so he made a comment that ‘I’ve created one new job — what has Obama done?’ ”
About 15 miles southwest of Raleigh, Apex is a bedroom community for the Research Triangle Park area, where new residents, drawn to high-paying jobs, have helped make the state more liberal. On Thursday, Vice President Biden will attend a fundraising breakfast at the home of a Raleigh business executive.
But not all the new residents are thriving. At one end of Salem Street, Yury Rohas, 42, opened Anna’s Pizzeria three years ago after moving from Long Island. On Tuesday afternoon, a handful of customers were eating at the 100-seat, two-story restaurant.
Rohas said he recently filed for bankruptcy. Although he kept his restaurant open, the bank foreclosed on his home. “The banks got a big stimulus, but small businesses didn’t,” Rohas said.
His restaurant manager, Melissa Harab, 41, came here three years ago after losing her teaching job in Florida. She taught fifth grade for two years before the Wake County school system laid her off in a round of budget cuts.
Harab grew up in a family of teachers who told her that the education field offered “a safe job.”
“Now it’s like you’re disposable,” Harab said. “Everything’s a budget issue.”
Obama has said that his jobs plan would provide $30 billion to rehabilitate crumbling schools and help local districts hire and retain teachers. On Tuesday, the president toured a school in Columbus, Ohio.
On Wednesday, he arrived in Apex to tour WestStar Precision, a manufacturing company. Accompanied by North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue (D), Obama walked the floor wearing safety goggles for about 14 minutes before departing.
State Republican officials quickly spread the word that WestStar operates a second plant in Costa Rica and complained that Obama was touting a company that was exporting jobs.
After his factory tour, the president told an enthusiastic crowd of more than 9,000 in Raleigh that his jobs plan would provide relief to 170,000 small-business owners and 13,000 teachers, firefighters and police officers in North Carolina alone.
“I came to talk about how America can get back to a place of creating good middle-class jobs again,” he said. “We can do that if we can finally get Washington to act. Corporate profits have come roaring back, but small businesses have not.”
A day earlier, inside Anna’s Pizzeria, Frank Boice, 45, an executive chef at a nearby country club, and Brian Woomer, 45, a commercial insurance salesman, were not in the mood to hear more promises from Obama.
Woomer, who opened his own insurance shop across the street in 1998, said his commissions have dropped 40 percent in the past three years because companies have reduced their payrolls and dropped their premiums.
“I don’t put all the blame on him. He was dealt this deck of cards when he came into office,” Woomer said of Obama. “But I haven’t seen him make one iota of difference.”
Boice lost his job and his home four years ago. Since then, he has tried to reestablish his life but has found the footing tough.
“What gets me is that after 31 / 2 years of building everything back, you still can’t get ahead,” Boice said. Of the president, he added: “If he’s trying to go to places and support small businesses, fine. But is it really working? No. It isn’t. It’s all pretty much a facade you see on TV. In real America — no, it’s not working.”