Ohio common stop for new presidents

Published 9:55 am Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Friday’s subzero condtions didn’t deter President-elect Barack Obama from picking Ohio as the location to plug his proposed $825 billion economic stimulus package.

The state’s suffering economy, large population, quintessential political mind-set and short distance from Washington make it an ideal whistle stop for such presidential visits.

It is doubly beneficial when a president can use the moment to press for a key Ohio lawmaker’s vote, as Obama tried to do Friday with GOP Sen. George Voinovich.

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Republican George W. Bush, freshly inaugurated in 2001, made a key early stop in the state as well — visiting Columbus on Feb. 20 of that year to pitch a package of education initiatives that included No Child Left Behind. Obama chose to visit the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights.

Both Obama and Bush won Ohio and, to some extent, such visits are meant as payback, a perk for Ohioans’ support, said Chris Duncan, chair of the University of Dayton’s political science department.

The state’s citizenry also experiences nearly every national trend that comes around.

‘‘Ohio is one of the states that is in deep economic trouble and a place like Cleveland, where you’ve got a lot of folks who have lost their jobs, is a good place to show the downturned economy,’’ Duncan said. ‘‘Obama wants to take a good look into the eyes of the folks who would benefit most from the stimulus.’’

Obama’s Ohio stop also drew America’s attention to those folks, said political scientist David Davis of the University of Toledo.

‘‘It’s like a big photo opportunity,’’ Davis said. ‘‘One more story about Obama in Washington isn’t going to be as interesting as a trip to Ohio or a trip to Philadelphia by train.’’

William Binning, political science chair at Youngstown State University, said the convenience factor can’t be ignored.

‘‘The real fiscal meltdown in state government is in California right now, but that’s a long trip,’’ he said. ‘‘Proximity and electoral influence explains why they come here as to other places.’’

Former Gov. Bob Taft, at the state’s helm during Bush’s 2001 visit, agreed.

‘‘It’s clearly a heartland state in terms of getting outside the Beltway,’’ said Taft, who left office in 2006. ‘‘It’s not too far away, not a long plane trip, but you’ve gotten beyond the East Coast, you’ve gotten out into the country.’’

As a national bellwether, Ohio can also provide a human litmus test for politicians’ big ideas that’s as good as any poll, said James Schnell, a professor of political rhetoric at Ohio Dominican University.

‘‘The candidates may have been decided, but the issues that they’re wrestling with aren’t going away,’’ Schnell said. ‘‘Monitoring the pulse of what’s happening in Ohio is a lot like monitoring the polls. If something isn’t playing well here, it’s probably not playing well nationwide.’’

Schnell said Ohio, a once proud manufacturing giant now hemorrhaging jobs, will be in the crosshairs of Obama’s early economic decision-making — and he is under intense pressure to succeed.

‘‘He’s got to balance many interests and someone’s going to be left in the cold, so to speak,’’ Schnell said.

Obama allies used the Ohio visit to press for Voinovich’s vote on the latest economic stimulus package, while Bush used his 2001 visit to drum up support for his signature education measure.

Influencing votes back home is part of what drives Washington politicians into the states, Taft said.

‘‘That’s something you would work into the decision about where to go, is what kind of support are you trying to pick up and who are the local important leaders that you’re trying to work on,’’ Taft said. ‘‘It obviously gets their attention pretty strongly if you come into their district to make an appearance.’’

Quick trip, payback, photo opportunity, or all three, Duncan believes Obama had one central goal in mind.

‘‘Clearly, there’s an attempt here to prod members of Congress who might be sitting on the fence to take a real close look at the price that might be paid for voting no and by whom, which would be middle class voters.’’

Julie Carr Smyth is a statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.