Reporting from Allentown, Pa. —
Standing in front of a chain link fence ringing a now boarded-up metal factory Barack Obama visited in 2009 to tout the economic stimulus, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney said the president means well, but simply lacks the knowledge to fix the economy.
“This president came here and called this a symbol of hope,” Romney said, standing before the overgrown lot dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. “It is a symbol of failure, failure of his economic policy. He’s out of his depth. When it comes to getting the economy going, it’s just not something he understands.”
Obama visited Allentown Metal Works in December 2009 as part of a whirlwind tour of Lehigh Valley businesses. The debt-addled factory closed in January.
Romney’s 10-minute press conference was a frontal assault on Obama’s economic record.
The former Massachusetts governor touted his business experience and pointed to the nation’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate as evidence Obama’s policies have failed. He ripped the president for not devoting enough energy to turning the economy around and vowed to make Obama a one-term president.
“The president ought to be in Washington meeting with Republicans, meeting with Democrats,” said Romney, who is leading the GOP field in recent polls. “He shouldn’t leave that town until he has an understanding of what it is going to take to get this economy going again and deal with this financial crisis. But he is here raising money for the campaign.”
Obama was in Philadelphia, where he was attending two political fundraisers. Romney was also in Pennsylvania to raise campaign cash.
The state is key in the 2012 race for the Oval Office, and the economy could be one of Obama’s key vulnerabilities.
Pennsylvania lost 136,663 jobs, including 39,000 in manufacturing between January 2009 when Obama took office and May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey. Romney highlighted the job losses in a web video released in advance of the visit to Allentown.
The state lost 220,200 manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2008 while President George W. Bush was in office. Overall though, the state’s economy added 160,723 jobs.
A relative moderate in the Republican primary field, Romney is the kind of candidate who could give Obama a battle in Pennsylvania in 2012, said Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pa.
“At least at this stage of the game, you could consider Romney a candidate that should be very competitive in a general election in Pennsylvania, especially if the economy is stalled or limping along in the fall of 2012,” Borick said.
Democrats, including Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and former Gov. Ed Rendell came to Obama’s defense.
“The Obama Administration played no role in that plant closing and for Mr. Romney to use it as a backdrop for his short-term political game is a disservice to our city, its citizens, and really the entire Lehigh Valley,” Pawlowski said.
Rendell called the event a “cheap shot,” and said the stimulus pumped $31 billion into the state economy in the form of tax cuts and spending that helped preserve and create jobs. At 7.4 percent, the state’s May unemployment rate is lower than the national rate, he said.
“Orders for steel were up 43 percent, concrete 40 percent, asphalt 54 percent,” Rendell said. “That added a ton of new jobs in our factories. The stimulus was a tremendous success in Pennsylvania.”
Reporter Matt Assad contributed to this story.