Obama, Dems begin defense 3 weeks too late

“Today we know that was the right decision,” Obama told a small crowd in the Chrysler Indiana Transmission Plant II. “This plant is now running at full capacity and that is why I am here today.” Not only is the plant running, Obama announced that Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne was making an additional $843 million investment in its Kokomo industrial cluster. That’s on top of $300 million that had been announced earlier. 

“Even as we continue to face serious challenges, what happened here at this plant and changes we are seeing at this plant in Kokomo … you are showing us the way forward and living up to that spirit of optimism, determinism and grit,” said Obama, making a rare appearance with Vice President Biden outside of Washington. 

“We’re coming back; we’re on the move,” a buoyant Obama proclaimed. “We decided to make a stand. We made the decision because we had confidence in the American worker.”

The two flew separately into Grissom Air Reserve base, had lunch with Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight and visited with 13 firefighters whose jobs were saved by the stimulus package. Earlier in the day, the White House noted that the stimulus package provided the state more than $8.4 billion, 71,000 jobs in Indiana and $400 million for Kokomo, which has seen its jobless rate fall from 18 percent to 12 percent. It funded 4,300 Hoosier teachers, 126 cops, and put $1.5 billion into the state’s Medicaid program. It provided $1.3 billion in tax relief to 2.4 million Hoosiers.

U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, who narrowly diverted defeat on Nov. 2, told Howey Politics Indiana, “We couldn’t have a better future here, now, in Howard County. Obviously we have a lot of work to do and a long way to go, but now we have a strong base back underneath us, whereas a year, a year and a half ago we weren’t sure what was going to happen.” Donnelly said that if General Motors and Chrysler had liquidated, “You would have seen a depression here. It would have caused extraordinary damage to our state, not only for families but also for state tax revenues, city and county tax revenues.”

While I watched this, I couldn’t help but wonder why Hoosier Democrats weren’t talking about this – and running TV ads with this story – six weeks earlier. In the ramp up to the Nov. 2 election, it was Gov. Mitch Daniels who took center stage in the auto rebound. 

On Oct. 26, he was in Columbus talking about new jobs coming to Cummins Inc., which makes engines for Dodge pickup trucks. “It’s a highly significant day for the Indiana economy. One of our oldest great companies, in a traditional industry, and one of our newest great companies, in a new high tech field, both growing by hundreds of jobs on the same day,” said Daniels of the company that employs 6,000 Hoosiers.

There was great irony in that. From late 2008 when the Bush administration began bailing out General Motors and Chrysler, Daniels was skeptical, wishing them “luck” while suggesting that they be run like Japanese auto makers. He questioned the wisdom of throwing good taxpayer money after bad. 

Washington Post columnist George Will observed in 2009 that Daniels was “alarmed” by the Obama administration’s “shock-and-awe statism” while he supported state Treasurer Richard Mourdock’s attempt to thwart the Chrysler-Fiat merger. Daniels noted in June 2009 when GM was seeking $46 million in incentives to retool its Fort Wayne plant, the embattled auto maker was in the “handout business.”

Mourdock would go on to win reelection, leading the state tickets with more than one million votes. He topped the GOP ticket in Kokomo – home to the largest Chrysler industrial cluster in the world.

Obama and Biden came too late. Hoosier Democrats lost eight seats in the Indiana House, including one in Kokomo and another in nearby Marion (a GM town); four in the Indiana Senate, and two Congressional seats. It was almost three, with Donnelly barely staving off a Republican challenge there.

During an October debate with Jackie Walorski, the Republican charged that Obama’s stimulus package “created no jobs. “Donnelly responded: “If you want to see jobs, go to Kokomo. Chrysler will pay back its loans by 2014. Those dollars will be paid back. Walk through the Chrysler plant and you’ll see people working.”

The stunning aspect of November’s election is that Hoosier Democrats barely mounted a defense. When Donnelly made that statement at Rochester, half of the auditorium packed with union folks exploded into cheers. It surely struck a nerve. But the party didn’t rally a TV ad campaign to say that Obama and Democrats might have saved 140,000 jobs in the state’s automotive and supplier sectors.

So President Obama began his defense of the auto restructuring and stimulus, three weeks after a shellacking election.

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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