CINCINNATI — President Obama used a campaign stop in Ohio on Monday to take aim at China and Mitt Romney by announcing a trade complaint against China for subsidizing auto parts made for export and amplifying attacks on Mr. Romney's investments in companies that ship jobs overseas.
As the president seeks to solidify his post-convention lead in the critical swing state with stops in Columbus and Cincinnati, his administration asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to review up to $1 billion worth of subsidies China gave to its own auto and auto-parts industries between 2009 and 2011 and to accelerate a WTO investigation of Chinese levies on U.S.-made cars, a separate case the White House first pursued earlier this year.
"These are subsidies that directly harm working men and women on the assembly line in Ohio and Michigan and across the Midwest," Mr. Obama said. "It is not right. It is against the rules, and we will not let it stand."
In launching the new trade enforcement case against China, Mr. Obama is focusing on an economic issue that resonates with Ohio voters and has become a flash point in the campaign, with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney repeatedly pledging to get tough with China on trade issues if elected.
Quickly responding, the government of China announced a new trade complaint against the United States, protesting anti-dumping measures against its exports, including kitchen appliances, magnets and paper.
Unlike Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama says he has plenty of experience standing up to China, filing more WTO complaints in one term than former President George W. Bush did in two terms. If Mr. Romney really cares about holding China accountable, Mr. Obama said Monday, he wouldn't continue to hold investments in companies that keep costs low by relying on Chinese factory workers and wouldn't support a tax plan Democrats say could encourage companies to outsource jobs overseas.
"Now, I understand my opponent has been running around Ohio claiming he's going to roll up his sleeves and take the fight to China," Mr. Obama said during his stop in Columbus. "But here's the thing: His experience has been owning companies that were called 'pioneers' in the business of outsourcing jobs to countries like China ... Ohio, you can't stand up to China when all you've done is send them our jobs."
In Ohio, the auto-parts industry directly employs 54,200 people, and the sector indirectly impacts 850,000 total jobs, or 12.4 percent of the economy, the White House said.
The administration's WTO action directly addresses criticism from Republicans and Mr. Romney, who regularly attacks Mr. Obama for failing to aggressively challenge China to abide by international trade laws. On Friday, while campaigning in Painesville, Ohio, Mr. Romney said he would demand that China stop manipulating its currency or face tariffs.
Obama campaign and administration officials insist the action is not motivated by politics, pointing to a number of successful complaints the U.S. trade representative has filed with the WTO during Mr. Obama's tenure.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Air Force One that Mr. Romney had "a special kind of chutzpah that he is going to criticize the president on an issue that he has been such a strong advocate and fighter for."
The Romney campaign called the administration's trade complaints "a blatantly political move." The Romney camp said the move highlights Mr. Obama's "unwillingness to crack down on cheating China in Ohio and across the country," and only happened because Mr. Romney had focused attention on the issue.
"President Obama may think that announcing new trade cases less than two months from Election Day will distract from his record, but the American businesses and workers struggling on an uneven playing field know better," Mr. Romney said at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting in Los Angeles. "If I'd known all it took to get him to take action was to run an ad citing his inaction on China's cheating, I would have run one long ago."
While Obama aides were peppered with questions from reporters about the timing of the WTO action and the political trip to Ohio, where an average of recent polls on realclearpolitics.com gives the president a 4 percent advantage, the Alliance for American Manufacturing applauded the trade complaint against China.
"President Obama is delivering a major boost to our nation's automotive sector workers and businesses today by holding China accountable for its cheating," AAM Executive Director Scott Paul said. "For the past eight months, we have built a compelling case on the merits of moving forward with a trade enforcement action on Chinese auto parts and automobiles. We commend the Obama administration for launching the case today."
The China trade issue also plays to voters in other Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, also gave Mr. Obama credit for the WTO action, saying he "pushed" the administration to take on China's trade practices in the automotive sector earlier this year and there still "much more" the president can do.
"When China cheats, middle-class Pennsylvanians lose jobs," Mr. Casey said. "Today's action is a step in the right direction to level the playing field. While the announcement is welcome news, there is much more the administration can do to confront China's rampant cheating, and I will continue to urge them to take additional action."
Despite Mr. Obama's 4-point edge in Ohio, the crowds gathered to hear him in Cincinnati and Columbus on Monday were smaller and more subdued than in some other recent venues in battleground areas, possibly a reflection of Mr. Obama's frequent stops in the state. It was his 28th visit of his presidency and the 12th this year.
Still, many of those attending the lunchtime speech in Cincinnati's Eden Park were die-hard loyalists sporting shirts with slogans such as "Change has come" and "Obama, I've got your back."
"We're very much still with our president," said Ricky Brown, 50, a postal worker. "He's been trying to get it done and is doing everything he can."
"He's our story — he struggles, but he's still working hard," said Levonda Beeks, 39. "We love our state, and we're seeing a comeback story."
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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