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February 9th, 2009
05:34 PM ET

Warmer weather, colder numbers

Steve Brusk
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.


Filed under: Economy • President Barack Obama • Steve Brusk • Unemployment
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Jaye Reno

    Rush Limbaugh Republicans would rather see Obama fail than see the country succeed. No help to the states and no stimulous = no extension of unemployment benefits? no health care for children? no food stamps? no $ to keep education going? Their "solution" More of the same: Just tax cuts for the rich. That's what got us (and the rest of the world) here DEPENDANCE on greedy arrogant business executives who were ( and unter the first TARP were encouraged tocontinue) looting their companies and this country for mega bonuses whihout even having to pay taxes while they had the Republican government in their pockets... and they want to obstruct and vote NO? Rush Limbaugh states should be left out of the stimulus. They voted no and when they couldn't win they didn't stop trying to drag us all down.

    February 10, 2009 at 7:50 am |
  2. Jan

    The Republicans' trickle-down theory has gone bust. It doesn;t work for one nation under God. It only works for those that through hard work or luck, already have some wealth.

    People need jobs – fast. Tax cuts are great for people who can put food on the table already.

    PS - I love seeing a President WORK. He even has Congress working weekends and through the night. Isn't this how it was suppose to look like with any crisis? 9/11, Katrina - I've never seen it before. God bless you, President Obama.

    February 10, 2009 at 12:13 am |
  3. Przemek Lodej

    Lisa Florida – Amazing way of thinking. People need to start saving not spending! If you think that spending will stimulate this wrecked economy based on worthless money and crooked investments you are living in lala land. Stop drinking this Keynes socialist cool aid. There is an old Egyptian saying: save fat cows for lean years. This is exactly where America is today. Zero savings in fat years, suffering in lean years. Business cycles come and go, it's how economics works. However, severity of the bust can be minimized if capital is accumulated. We have none!!! Unsound businesses must fail, banks that made bad investments and suckered borrowers in must go bankrupt, inflated home prices must fall to stabilize the market. People must understand that we overdosed on spending. In order to get healthy the economy has to suffer before it gets better. It's unfortunate that the majority of Americans don't understand the basics of economics and believe what the media feeds them.

    February 10, 2009 at 12:02 am |
  4. Przemek Lodej

    President Obama seems to lack the fundamental knowledge and understanding of how a healthy economy should function. If the crisis was caused by over spending and over extending cheap credit how in the world is he going to save it by doing more of the same?? It's astonishing how irrational and straight out insane this administration and Congress are. How about a healthy dose of Austrian economics Mr.President, it really doesn't hurt that much to think.

    February 9, 2009 at 10:55 pm |
  5. Jenny Moorhead

    It is true that Lee County has suffered like many other parts of the country. I have been a realtor in Ft. Myers for nearly 20 years and the housing market is one like we have never seen. Lending constraints must be relaxed. People are trying to buy, but lenders do not appear to really want to lend. The short sale process is nearly impossible. I have a client who has been waiting for close to 3 months on an answer to try and purchase a home. We don't understand why it takes so long. Houses continue to fall into foreclosure, yet the banks don't cooperate. The lending institutions continue to request funding, yet when faced with an opportunity to minimize their loss, they do nothing. There must be some resolution.

    February 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm |
  6. Lisa- Florida

    This Floridian is behind President Obama all the way! The stimulus will bring an estimated 218,000 jobs to Florida. Cutting taxes won't stimulate this economic climate- people wll just save the money-"in case".

    February 9, 2009 at 9:46 pm |

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