- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2011

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Thursday traveled to a century-old Pennsylvania manufacturing plant that closed earlier this year and blamed its shuttering on the “Obama economy” - but elected officials and business leaders said it was unfair to connect the president’s policies to the plant’s closure, which was decades in the making.

Those officials told The Washington Times that Allentown Metal Works, Inc., was more likely the victim of the transition from manufacturing to a service-based economy that has left the Allentown area with the loss of many large and mid-sized manufacturers.

Whatever the cause, the plant has become ammunition in the nascent 2012 presidential campaign.

Mr. Obama toured the metal fabrication facility in December 2009, just 10 months after he signed the Recovery Act into law, and touted it as a symbol of the resilience of the nation’s manufacturing sector.

But Mr. Romney on Thursday called the plant, which closed in January, “a symbol of failure of Obama’s policies.”

“The plant here has been open 100 years and it survived the Great Depression, but it could not survive the Obama economy,” he said.

Well aware that the economy could become Mr. Obama’s Achilles heel in his 2012 re-election bid, Republicans have cast the president as an economic grim reaper and railed at his administration’s prediction that the $830 billion stimulus package would keep the unemployment rate, which now stands at 9.1 percent, below 8 percent.

Polls suggest that voters, meanwhile, do not view the stimulus package as having revived the economy. A Fox News survey released Thursday, for example, said 69 percent of registered voters think the package either hurt the economy or made no difference.

Mr. Obama continues to travel to different manufacturing plants across the country to call attention to the important role a revitalized manufacturing sector can play in boosting the nation’s ability to compete in a global economy. The number of manufacturing jobs has grown by nearly 250,000 since the beginning of 2010, which the administration says is the best record in a decade.

T. Anthony Iannelli, president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday that it was a “stretch” for the Romney camp to suggest the president was responsible for the Allentown Metals Works’ closure, but said that he understood the political math.

“On the flip side, it is safe to say when you come and champion a particular site as a symbol of economic progress and two years later they’re out of business, I guess the only thing you can say is, ‘oops.’ Maybe it wasn’t a good choice,” he said.

During his visit to the area in 2009, Mr. Obama delivered a speech at a local community college in which he briefly talked about meeting Allentown Metal Works employees, saying they’ve “been doing the best they can to stay afloat in a brutal recession that has hit folks like them the hardest of all.” He also shared the “encouraging news” that fewer jobs than forecast had been lost the previous month, and the unemployment rate ticked down.

“The journey from here will not be without setbacks or struggle,” he warned. “There will be more bumps in the road. But the direction is clear. When you think about how this year began, today’s report is a welcome sign that there are better days ahead.”

Scott Unger, executive director of the Allentown Economic Development Corp., said that the reasons behind a business’ closure can be tough to decipher and “to draw any straight line” between the administration’s policy and Allentown Metal Works closure “would be a stretch.”

“Why a business closes is a very complicated thing,” Mr. Unger said. “Like anything, it is usually a sum of a bunch of different things that happened at the same time and it is rarely just one thing that causes that to happen.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, described Mr. Romney’s appearance in Allentown as a “cheap shot.”

“The fact that it closed had nothing to do with the president’s policies,” Mr. Rendell told reporters in a conference call.

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