CNN Senior National Editor
A president trying to fix a struggling economy, who likes to get out of Washington to sell his message, speaks in Columbus, Ohio on March 6th.
Yes, that’s true about President Obama on Friday. It was also true 25 years ago to the day, when President Ronald Reagan visited Columbus.
For Mr. Obama, it’s a return to a city and a state that gave him a major victory in November. Obama beat John McCain by four points in Ohio, and won Columbus’ home, Franklin County, by 20 points. Three days before the election, Mr. Obama drew a crowd of more than 60,000 people to a downtown rally.
The political landscape was far different there a quarter century ago. The Democrats weren’t even competitive there in the 1984 election, as Mr. Reagan took the state by double digits and carried the same Columbus area by 30 points.
But one major theme remains the same in Ohio – concern over jobs and the economy. Ohio’s unemployment rate in January was 8.8 percent, the worst since 1985, and among the highest there since Mr. Reagan’s appearance. But a key difference: Ohio was beginning a recovery in March 1984, with the 9.9 percent rate down 3 points from the previous year.
President Reagan came to Columbus to talk faith before the National Association of Evangelicals. But his speech in the rust belt state included the economy, as he told the crowd, “We've begun tackling one problem after another. We've knocked inflation down, and we can keep it down. The prime rate is about half what it was when our administration took office. All across the country, a powerful economic recovery is gaining strength.”
On a day when more bad national employment news is expected, Mr. Obama is also using his Columbus appearance to help sell his strategy to fix it.
He will speak at the graduation ceremonies for a Columbus Police recruiting class that almost didn’t make it because of the economic downturn. In January, the city of Columbus had to lay off the 25 officers-to-be before they even started their jobs. The class was saved by a $1.2 million grant from the federal stimulus package, which will fund their positions until the end of 2009.
Mr. Obama’s appearance is designed to highlight jobs being saved or created by the package. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters, “the money that they'll see from legislation will allow them to save those jobs, put those cops back on the street. And I think that's a good news story in a day in which there will be some very tough economic figures.”
Acknowledging Friday’s likely bad news, another expected jump in the national unemployment rate, Gibbs said, “Obviously Ohio has been hard hit by the economic crisis that we face. They've seen a lot of job loss. The President will certainly talk about the figures that will come out tomorrow, and also talk about how the Recovery and Reinvestment Plan is being implemented, and implemented in a way that will save and create jobs.”
But local officials note the stimulus money won’t end the economic problems in Columbus. On the eve of the President’s trip, a city spokesman was quoted by the Associated Press saying, “If anyone thinks this solves our long-term budget challenges, they're going to be disappointed.”
But the White House wants images to help counter that kind of news. The image Mr. Obama wants to project Friday is him shaking hands with the new officers in uniform – officers the Administration wants to show might have been part of the unemployment figures without that stimulus.
It is a page from the media strategy of a previous Commander in Chief, who played the same stage 25 years earlier.
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