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Obama pivots from terrorism to gas prices

On a visit to Indiana, where many areas are struggling, the president takes a break from his Osama bin Laden victory lap to show sympathy with voters' economic concerns.

May 06, 2011|By Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau
  • The president spoke with workers at Allison Transmission in Indianapolis, which makes automatic transmissions for vehicles.
The president spoke with workers at Allison Transmission in Indianapolis,… (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Terre Haute, Ind. — Political operatives for both parties believe that pocketbook issues, not foreign policy, will determine the next election, and Obama was quick to pivot from terrorism back to voters' economic concerns — high gasoline prices, for example.

At the end of a momentous week, President Obama headed for Indiana, hoping he's now in a position to woo voters like Charlotte Michalak.

Michalak voted for Obama in 2008 and now finds herself uncertain. She works two jobs so she can pay her bills. She's given up cable TV service to cut costs. Another large spike in gas prices, she fears, could sever her fraying link to the middle class, to her western Indiana home, to self-sufficiency.

"I want to see what's out there," Michalak, 55, said about the next election, as she ate lunch at a cafeteria here earlier this week. "I just want to see what's being said and what's happening."

What's been happening this week is a bit of a victory lap for the president in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. Obama has seen his standing advance in the polls and Republicans retreat on their plan to overhaul Medicare. Voters have indicated to pollsters that they feel more confident in him as commander in chief.

Thursday he visited the former World Trade Center site. Later Friday, he headed to Ft. Campbell, Ky., to meet with the commandos who attacked Bin Laden's compound and to shake hands with troops.

In front of 2,300 cheering soldiers gathered in a hangar, he declared a victory over Al Qaeda. "We have cut off their head," Obama said, "and we will ultimately defeat them." The death of Al Qaeda's leader, he said, shows that "our strategy is working."

But political operatives for both parties believe that pocketbook issues, not foreign policy, will determine the next election, and Obama was also quick to pivot from terrorism back to the economic concerns of voters like Michalak — high gasoline prices, for example.

"I know how tough it is," said Obama, speaking at Allison Transmission in Indianapolis, which makes automatic transmissions for vehicles. "If you've got to drive to work and you may not be able to afford buying a new car, so you've got that old beater that gets you 8 miles per gallon, it's tough. It is a huge strain on a lot of people."

He pushed administration energy policies designed to boost automobile fuel efficiency and subsidize electric vehicles, saying they would lead to new manufacturing jobs and wean the U.S. off imported oil. And while he conceded that such measures are not a recipe for bringing down gas prices right away, he wanted frustrated voters to come away convinced that he sides with them — not the oil companies.

"Oil companies over the last five years, through a recession, through ups and downs, the top five oil companies, their profits have ranged between $75 billion and $125 billion," he said. "And yet they still have a tax loophole that is costing taxpayers $4 billion every year. Now, if you're already paying them at the pump, we don't need to pay them through the tax code."

This was Obama's fifth trip to Indiana as president. In 2008 he narrowly won this state, the first Democrat to accomplish that since Lyndon B. Johnson. Two years later, Republicans scored big gains here by running against his policies.

"Had there been a presidential election in 2010, Obama would have lost badly," said Tom Steiger, a sociology professor at Indiana State University.

Parts of the state are suffering. Vigo County, where Terre Haute is the largest city, is considered a bellwether, having voted for the winner in all but two presidential contests dating back more than a century. The pattern held in 2008, with Obama beating Republican John McCain, 57% to 41%.

Gas prices here average $4.19 a gallon — 5% higher than the national average, according to AAA's daily fuel report. A year ago, the average price was $2.94.

County unemployment is running about half a point higher than in the rest of the country.

Completing the most successful military operation of his presidency helps Obama with some of the area's voters.

"I thought it was great, and I'm a Republican,'' said Sandra Henderson, 70, a retired teacher from Brazil, Ind. "He's not going to back off from things. And I wasn't sure of that before.''

For his recent gains in the polls to endure in places like this, Obama must show real progress in lowering the unemployment rate and bringing down gas prices, some Indiana Democrats say.

Joseph Anderson, a Terre Haute attorney and Democratic Party activist, said the Bin Laden killing solves for Obama an age-old political problem for Democratic presidents. Having vanquished the world's most feared terrorist, Obama can rebut Republican accusations that he's "a wimp," showing that he is in fact a strong commander in chief, Anderson said.

But the economy is still the top issue, Anderson said. "If he doesn't get things changed around, we'd get beat by Sarah Palin."

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