Senior National Editor
When Air Force One touches down in Fort Myers, Florida Tuesday morning, the weather will be different from that of northern Indiana. Little else will be.
President Obama won’t see anyone in earmuffs at the airport, or remnants of dirty snow along the motorcade route to the town hall meeting. But like their rust belt colleagues in Elkhart, people in Lee County are among the hardest hit by the economic downturn.
Fort Myers restaurant manager Debbie Kendall sees it every day. “People are very nervous,” she said of her customers, “maybe even scared. Everything is so up in the air.”
The cold, hard numbers: the unemployment rate in the Gulf Coast community was 2.3 percent this time in 2006. By last winter, it was six percent. The latest numbers put the jobless rate in Lee County at 10 percent. That translates to 28,396 people looking for work.
The numbers were different Monday morning, but were very telling. Hundreds lined up outside the Harborside Event Center waiting for tickets to the President’s town hall meeting. They began waiting in line over the weekend. Many camped out overnight, with tents and sleeping bags springing up near the front door. When she arrived for early Monday, a convention center worker said it was “line upon line upon line.” It took less than an hour for all the tickets to be given away.
The worker said “I haven’t seen anything like that” before at the center. Asked she was surprised by lines, she first said, “I was."
She paused, and then said, “No, I really wasn’t.”
The huge turnout won’t completely be a sign of support for the new President. This is in a county where candidate Barack Obama wasn’t the rock star during the campaign. He didn’t visit Fort Myers, and he lost Lee County by ten points to John McCain. (Joe Biden did hold an economic roundtable there in September, in the same convention center where Mr. Obama speaks Tuesday.)
The White House, trying to take the debate over the stimulus out of divided Washington with these campaign style events, is trying to paint the Florida gathering as bipartisan. They announced the state’s popular Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, will attend the town rally and introduced the President. Mr. Obama said in a statement, “we agree that we can’t allow politics to get in the way of urgent relief for the millions of families and small businesses that need it.”
But not all politics will be overshadowed. The event is in the district of Republican Congressman Connie Mack, who voted against the stimulus bill in the House. He will not be there Tuesday…his spokesperson said he will be in Washington for votes. She said Mack was “informed about the town hall but not invited.” Mack's office called to say the Congressman and the other members of the Florida delegation were called at 6pm by the White House and invited to attend. The spokesperson said he appreciated the invitation, but won't be able to attend.
Mack wrote an open letter to President Obama, published Monday in two newspapers in the district. In it, Mack wrote, “History has proven that we can't spend our way to prosperity. Our children and grandchildren deserve better than to inherit a future of more government, more spending and more debt. Mr. President, the people of Southwest Florida want you to hear them clearly. They want Washington to act appropriately. They want Washington to unleash our economy's full potential so that businesses grow and thrive, and so that people can work, save for their futures and pursue their dreams.
He added, “Mr. President, listen to the people. Take their message to heart. And let us go down the road to economic prosperity through less taxing, less spending, less government and more freedom.”
At Clancey’s, a busy restaurant along McGregor Boulevard, Kendall said politics and the economy are daily topics.
“Historically this is a very Republican area. But people are hoping some of the ideas (President Obama) is bringing in can turn things around”, she told us by phone. Some voters who in November didn’t vote for Mr. Obama, she said, “are giving him the benefit of the doubt.”
Still, there is skepticism is the morning talk about the stimulus bill. Kendall said people fear “it’s going to be like the last one”, with little real impact on their own lives.
Adding to the worry in Fort Myers: this is the busiest time for the year for businesses, with winter tourism helping the bottom line. But Kendall said she has seen a lot of places “folding in the height of the season”.
The restaurant is the oldest in Lee County, founded in 1918 on what the city’s main drag. Dollar bills from customers hang on the wall. But Kendall said many customers aren’t spending as many of those as they used to. “People are being more careful in their spending habits”, she said. “Not because they have to now. But they’re making plans just in case” this doesn’t turn around as fast as they hope.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with