New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes got a prominent Sunday front-page spot for a rather humdrum story on economic recovery in a blue-collar Indiana town and why President Obama wasn’t getting the credit he deserved for it. Racism, perhaps? The puzzled headline: “Political Discontent Festers in Indiana Town Despite Jobs Surge.” Online it was more explicit: “Obama Gets Scant Credit in Indiana Region Where Recovery Was Robust.”
Calmes, an Obama fan who in 2015 devoted 16,000 words to the corrosive effects of conservative talk radio in a report written on sabbatical at Harvard, acted disappointed that the blue collar denizens of Elkhart, Indiana weren’t sufficiently grateful to Obama.
Seven years ago President Obama came to this northern Indiana city, where unemployment was heading past 20 percent, for his first trip as president. Ed Neufeldt, the jobless man picked to introduce him, afterward donned three green rubber bracelets, each to be removed in turn as joblessness fell to 5 percent in the county, the state and the nation.
Now the rate is 3.8%, among the nation's lowest. But does the poor president get any thanks from Elkhartians? No.
Mr. Obama, whose four trips here during 2008 and 2009 tracked the area’s decline, is expected to return for the first time in coming weeks, both to showcase its recovery and to warn against going back to Republican economic policies. Yet where is Mr. Neufeldt leaning in this presidential election year? He may keep a photograph of himself and Mr. Obama on a desk at the medical office he cleans nightly, but he is considering Donald J. Trump.
Billboards proclaim, “Hiring: Welders. Up to $23/hour,” but for all the progress, many people here -- like Americans elsewhere -- harbor unshakable anxiety about stagnant wages, their economic future and the erosion of the middle class generally. Antigovernment resentments over past bank bailouts linger, stoked by candidates in both parties (though taxpayers got their money back, with dividends). And social issues such as abortion, gun rights, same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act and immigration loom larger than any other for some voters.
The enduring wounds of the Great Recession, together with discouraging economic trends that long predated it, have fueled anger on the left but especially on the right, thanks to Mr. Trump, the maverick Republican front-runner. Mr. Obama is not getting the recognition historically accorded a president who presides over economic revival, but then again, neither are divided Republicans seen as offering a positive alternative.
For Mr. Obama, pondering his legacy and hearing how it is debated in the contest for his successor, the dearth of credit is plainly vexing. “We avoided a Great Depression,” he interjected during an onstage interview last month in Austin, Tex., adding sardonically, “Thanks, Obama.”
Few people here are thanking him for their recovery, despite benefits from the administration’s $800 billion stimulus package -- Mr. Obama came here in August 2009 to personally announce one grant -- and from the rescues of the auto and financial industries.
“He gets very, very little credit, and I think that’s too bad because we got quite a bit of help,” said Dick Moore, Elkhart’s mayor the past eight years, a Democrat who lost election to a third term in November. “I don’t know what we would have done without it.”
Brian A. Howey, publisher of the Howey Politics Indiana newsletter and once a reporter in Elkhart, sounded stumped, even allowing for the state’s conservatism: “I’m a lifelong Hoosier. I’m just amazed that not only do people not appreciate what happened in ’09, but there’s a lot of hostility toward Obama. I think part of it is racial and a lot of it is political.”
Now, Mr. Donnelly noted, Chrysler plants employ more than 5,000 people to the south in Kokomo, up from 100 at their nadir, and 7,000 statewide. Yet autoworkers are more apt to complain about the president’s gun proposals than to acknowledge the auto turnaround.
Calmes returned to Obama’s biggest fan in Indiana, before trying to suggest that the whole conservative Indiana idea of self-reliance was a misnomer.
Mr. Obama sought to help the county diversify, with $39 million from the stimulus money to develop electric trucks at a former R.V. factory. But the effort fizzled, the owners sold the plant and now it is back to making R.V.s exclusively. (Mr. Neufeldt, still a believer in Mr. Obama’s push for green jobs, again wears green wristbands to signify that cause.)
Additional stimulus money went to improve the municipal airport and local highways, buy law enforcement equipment, remove lead and weatherize buildings -- purposes that did not create many jobs but helped avoid layoffs, said Kyle Hannon, the president of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce.
“We knew we would be back,” Mr. Hannon said, reflecting locals’ sense of their resilience and self-sufficiency, regardless of government’s hand.