- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2008

They have the same job, they want the same job, and neither Sen. Barack Obama nor Sen. John McCain has been particularly subtle about where the issue of jobs ranks in the closing weeks of their presidential battle.

“We need to pass an economic rescue plan for the middle class and we need to do it now,” Mr. Obama told a crowd in the critical battleground state of Ohio earlier this month. “It’s a plan that begins with one word that’s on everyone’s mind, and it’s spelled J-O-B-S.”

For his part, Mr. McCain bats away any suggestion his campaign is not focused on the same issue.

“Listen to me,” he said in an interview on CBS this past week. “I’m the candidate, and this campaign is about the economy.”

Truly Crain has listened to both men — and is distinctly unimpressed.

The 46-year-old mother and grandmother from Crooksville, Ohio, has been out of work since June, laid off after 28 years by car-parts manufacturer Lear Corp. The company, which has moved many of its operations to Mexico, employed some 1,300 union workers a decade ago and will be leaving town for good in mid-2009.

“Both of them just make me mad,” she said. “As far as I can tell, neither of them is addressing the fact that we’re losing jobs here. They’re just interested in making the other guy look bad.”

The loss of her $13.70-an-hour job has cut the family’s income nearly in half, and she has struggled to get creditors to stretch out the payments on outstanding bills and loans she and her husband have. She is going to school three nights a week trying to earn her high school-equivalency degree, which she needs to get a new job.

“Everyone is mad,” said Joe Haught, acting president of Local 1628 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Zanesville. “They’re just sick because [the plant] is leaving. Most of the people have been there anywhere from 30 to 45 years and they expected to retire from the company, but they’re too old to find any work.”

Mr. Haught, who will lose his job when the company closes down for good next year, said young people in Zanesville are leaving to find jobs elsewhere.

“We don’t have enough jobs in this town to cover all of the people who are going to be laid off,” he said.

Mrs. Crain and Mr. Haught are fiercely critical of the NAFTA free-trade deal and Mrs. Crain doubts she will vote for either candidate next month.

“If Hillary [Clinton] were running, I’d vote for her,” Mrs. Crain said, “but I get real mixed feelings about the two we have running now.”

Their worries are not unusual this election season.

Faced with collapsing home values, plunging stock markets, evaporating retirement funds, rising jobless rates and a global banking crisis, voters consistently rank the economy and jobs as their top concern, far ahead of national security, health care, the environment, hot-button social issues or the composition of the Supreme Court.

A taxpayer-funded bailout of Wall Street — supported by both candidates — has only increased the prominence of bread-and-butter economic issues and forced both campaigns to scramble to adjust to rapidly deteriorating forecasts on employment, trade and government deficits.

The U.S. jobless rate was 6.1 percent in September, according to the Labor Department, up from 4.7 percent a year earlier. Nationwide, the ranks of the unemployed grew by 2.2 million to 9.5 million and most economic forecasters project that the unemployment rate will only grow if, as expected, the U.S. and world economies tip into recession.

The numbers are bad and getting worse in a number of states considered critical to the election. Florida (6.6 percent), Ohio (7.2 percent), North Carolina (7.0 percent), and Nevada (7.3 percent) all have unemployment rates above the national average and substantially worse than just before the 2006 election.

Yahoo, Merrill Lynch, General Motors, Cooper Tire & Rubber are just some of the growing list of companies announcing layoffs in recent days.

In Zanesville, the news is both good and bad, according to Bob Mercer, supervisor of the Muskingum County Opportunity Center, a “one-stop shop” for unemployed and recently laid-off workers to find new work. The county’s jobless rate in August was 8.9 percent, up from 7.3 percent a year ago.

President Bush carried the county in 2004 against Democratic Sen. John Kerry, 57.3 percent to 42.3 percent, but polls this time suggest a much closer race.

Lear’s decision to pull up stakes was a blow, but cosmetics giant Avon is completing a major new distribution center in the city, holding an information fair for potential employees Thursday for a site that will eventually employ about 450 people. Time Warner is also opening a new call center that will create another 150 new local jobs.

“It’s a mixed picture for us,” he said. “We lost some good jobs, but with Avon and Time Warner we’re staying busy. Because we knew Lear was closing up for several years, we had some time to prepare.”

Pollsters say Mr. Obama’s current lead in the polls rests primarily on his higher marks on which candidate can deal with the economy.

A Pew Research Center survey last week gave Mr. Obama a 21-point lead (53 percent to 32 percent) over Mr. McCain on which candidate will do a better job improving economic conditions and a 15-point lead (50 percent to 35 percent) on “dealing with taxes” — traditionally a Republican strong suit.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Wednesday found the Democrat with a double-digit lead over his rival on which candidate could better handle issues such as the housing crisis, the Wall Street implosion and taxes.

Mr. McCain is fighting back, with his campaign striking a populist note centered on the tax burden on “Joe the Plumber” and seizing on a comment by Mr. Obama that he wanted to “spread the wealth” as proof he favors classic liberal tax-and-spend policies.

Asked if he thought Mr. Obama was a “socialist,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Office of Management and Budget and Mr. McCain’s top economic adviser, replied, “I have no idea what Mr. Obama is, and that’s a major concern.”

Mr. Holtz-Eakin said Mr. Obama’s economic platform, which includes a major middle-class tax cut and “trillions of dollars in new spending,” amounted to a “fiscal house of cards” that cannot be sustained.

Mr. Obama “is verbally one of the most talented people we’ve ever seen and he did it for a long time until he walked into some plumber’s driveway. That was his mistake,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said at a forum sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week.

Austan Goolsbee, a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and a top economic adviser to Mr. Obama, countered that it was Mr. McCain’s proposed tax cuts that were fiscally irresponsible. Mr. McCain’s plan to freeze most federal spending and cut back on spending earmarks would shave at best $30 billion from a projected $1 trillion budget deficit, he said.

Mr. Goolsbee, at the same forum, said the McCain budget was from the “same old playbook” calling for immediate tax cuts for the wealthy and unspecified spending cuts in the future.

“The historical record on that kind of program is not super-great,” he said.

Highlights of the Obama economic platform include a middle-class tax cut for those making less than $250,000 a year, the investment of $60 billion in new infrastructure, and a tax credit for businesses that take on new workers over the next two years. He also proposes spending $150 billion on new “clean energy technology,” which his campaign said would create 5 million new jobs over the next decade.

In the wake of the recent worldwide economic crisis, the Illinois Democrat also has backed a 90-day moratorium on home foreclosures at some banks and a waiver for families to withdraw up to $10,000 from their retirement funds without penalty.

“Make no mistake about it, after eight years of Bush-McCain economics, the pie is now shrinking. That means lower wages and declining incomes and plummeting home values and rising unemployment,” Mr. Obama told a “jobs summit” he convened in Florida last week.

Mr. McCain’s economic agenda focuses first on tax cuts, insisting that Mr. Obama will not be able to deliver the tax relief he promises. Mr. McCain could cap the tax rate for small businesses and cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. He would cut the capital gains tax in half to 7.5 percent for two years to spur investment and lower the tax bite on IRAs and 401(k) plans.

“I will help create jobs for Americans in the most effective way a president can do this — with tax cuts that are directed specifically to create jobs and protect your life savings,” Mr. McCain told a campaign rally earlier this month at Montgomery County Community College in suburban Philadelphia.

Mr. McCain also has proposed a $300 billion plan for the government to directly buy up troubled mortgages at face value and help struggling homeowners refinance them. He argued that it was the most efficient way to remove troubled properties that are dragging down the market as a whole, but the Obama campaign has attacked the idea as a giveaway to banks who hold the troubled loans.

The prospect of a new federal stimulus package to jump-start the economy has provided a new point of disagreement for the campaigns. Mr. Obama is for it, while Mr. McCain has expressed reservations.

“We do not believe that a national crisis should be taken as a license for wasteful spending or earmarked projects,” Mr. McCain said in a statement last week.

Mr. Haught, the union local president, said he wants to see the federal government end what he called subsidies to corporations like Lear to move American jobs to other countries.

“I want them to have some kind of restriction on how companies can leave and go overseas,” he said.

Zaneville’s Mrs. Crain says she hasn’t followed the economic debates closely and doesn’t think it matters much in the end.

“They all get up there and say all kinds of stuff and promise all kinds of changes,” she said. ” I just hope whichever one gets it will take a long, close look at the economy and do something.”

Katie Falkenberg contributed to this report.