By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau –
TOLEDO, Ohio — For months, President Barack Obama’s campaign has searched for an overarching theme for his re-election bid, something to replace the enthusiastic hope and change motif of 2008.
Thursday, they unveiled one and sent Vice President Joe Biden to the key swing state of Ohio to test it out — framing the election as a choice between “promoting the private sector” and “protecting the privileged sector.”
“We are a fair shot, and a fair shake. They’re about no rules, no risks and no accountability,” Biden said, contrasting the administration with its Republican opponents and taking the rescue of the American auto industry as his central case.
That choice of topics highlighted how much the auto bailout will figure in Obama’s re-election campaign. The initiatives the administration regards as its biggest accomplishments — the health care law, the economic stimulus, the financial market reforms — all remain unpopular or virtually unnoticed among voters.
The auto industry bailout, by contrast, is highly visible, concrete and of particular note in states like this one.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio. GOP strategists believe they’re well-positioned here, pointing to strong gains they made in 2010.
But Obama strategists hope to slam the door on whoever emerges as the Republican nominee by carrying the state as they did in 2008. Boosted by hiring in its manufacturing sector, much of which feeds the auto industry, Ohio’s unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent last month, from 9 percent a year earlier.
Chrysler, one of the beneficiaries of the 2009 rescue plan, announced last November that it plans to invest $500 million in its Toledo plant and add a second shift by the second half of 2013 that will result in 1,100 additional jobs.
Beyond the immediate economic impact of the bailout, Biden connected it with a personality trait in Obama that strategists believe voters respond to and which they plan to play up — toughness. “This man has a spine of steel,” Biden said.
“We all want a president with the courage of his convictions. He made the tough call. And the verdict is in: President Obama was right and they were dead wrong,” he said, listing by name each of the Republicans hoping to replace Obama and drawing cheers from an audience of United Auto Workers union members.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, he reminded the crowd, wrote a now-famous op-ed as Obama was mulling whether to rescue the auto companies. Romney called for a managed bankruptcy with bridge loans financed by the private sector, not taxpayers.
“Any honest expert will tell you in 2009, no one was lining up to lend General Motors or Chrysler any money, or, for that matter, lend money to anybody. That includes Bain Capital,” Biden said, referring to the financial firm Romney once ran.
The GOP opposition to the auto rescue, Biden argued, showed the “fundamentally different economic philosophy” between Republicans and the administration, and is a “cautionary tale” about how they would run the government if returned to power.
The Romney campaign shot back, referring to a statement Biden had made in 2007 in which he questioned whether Obama was ready to be president. “He was right,” campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement. Obama “has devastated the middle class by failing to live up to his promises.”
At least with the pro-Democratic crowd here, Romney’s arguments got little traction.
“He can say what he wants,” Debbie Brakke, who works at GM’s local transmission plant, said of Romney. “I probably wouldn’t have a job today if it wasn’t for them.”
Brakke’s 27-year employment at GM was interrupted in 2008 when she was laid off at the height of the crisis. She’s now back at work, and the company is still hiring.
Biden’s speech came as part of a larger ramping up of the re-election campaign that included the release of a documentary-style video looking back at the first three years of Obama’s administration.
That’s not to say the president isn’t also injecting politics into what are ostensibly policy speeches. Speaking in suburban Washington at the same time as Biden, the president chided Republicans for views of energy policy that he said qualify them for the “Flat Earth Society.”
But Biden is being dispatched in a more explicit campaign role to push the argument in a way that strategists feel is too aggressive for the president to do this early. Instead, Biden will play the traditional running mate role of attack dog, particularly in the industrial states where he spent much of his time in the 2008 campaign.