US: Obama looks to woo blue-collar workers

AP Political Writer

Joe Heston tends to vote Republican, but after listening to Barack Obama speak on Monday, he may vote for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “I like his ideas, especially on the economy and education,” said Heston, a 23-year-old Kettering University senior from Monterey, Calif., who attended Obama’s speech at the Flint school. “I’m going to take a long look in this election.”

Obama, making his third campaign swing through Michigan since mid-May, said Monday he wants to move America to a place where workers can compete in a global economy.

“Not only is it impossible to turn back the tide of globalization, but efforts to do so can make us worse off,” the Illinois senator told the crowd of more than 1,000.

The audience cheered loudly when Obama talked of his plans for universal health insurance, grants for students to attend college and more support for research and development.

“I know as well that more than anything else, success will depend not on our government, but on the dynamism, determination and innovation of the American people,” Obama said, giving a decidedly local twist to his remarks. “Here in Flint, it was the private sector that helped turn lumber into the wagons that sent this country west; that built the tanks that faced down fascism; and that turned out the automobiles that were the cornerstone of America’s manufacturing boom.

“But at critical moments of transition like this one, success has also depended on national leadership that moved the country forward with confidence and a common purpose.”

Obama’s message about putting in place policies that would help Americans cope with high prices for gasoline, food and education was especially well-suited for Flint, where the metropolitan area had a seasonally unadjusted April unemployment rate of 9.3 percent.

It also was expected to resonate well when he spoke Monday evening in Detroit, where the April area unemployment rate was 6.9 percent, the same rate as the state’s seasonally adjusted rate. Michigan has had the nation’s highest unemployment rate in recent years.

One of those on hand to hear Obama at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena said he hoped the candidate would give more attention to international issues.

“Obama should focus on foreign affairs,” said Aaron Mestel, 36, of Ann Arbor. “He needs to look at what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think whenever you have a stick you also have to have a carrot. We don’t have a carrot.”

Michael McGonegal, an industrial products sales representative from Brighton who attended the Flint speech, said he thinks Obama is reaching voters with his comments on the importance of leveling the economic playing field.

“It’s like Monopoly. If you get all the money in Park Place and Boardwalk, you have to close up the board and go home,” the 59-year-old said. “Right here in Flint is where the middle class started. … (But) the middle class is evaporating.”

During his speech, Obama repeated his claims that Republican rival John McCain simply will re-warm the policies of President Bush if elected.

“President Bush’s policies have put us in the hole, and John McCain’s policies will keep us there. I want to get us out of the hole,” Obama said. “I’ll double federal funding for basic research and make the R&D tax credit permanent. We can ensure that the discoveries of the 21st century happen in America — in our labs and universities; at places like Kettering and the University of Michigan; Wayne State and Michigan State.”

But U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, in a teleconference set up by the Michigan Republican Party, said Obama’s policies would hurt the state’s middle class. Rogers said those policies would raise taxes on coal and natural gas and lead to higher gasoline prices.

“This guy is completely out of touch with the average Michigan family,” said Rogers, a Brighton Republican.

In a statement, Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Camp of Midland also criticized Obama.

“Sen. Obama failed to mention his plans to increase energy taxes, especially those levied on coal and natural gas. Increasing these taxes will halt our recovery before it ever begins,” he said.

Obama met before the event with Flint residents Nicholas and Candis Letterman and their children. They make less than $40,000 a year and are having trouble making ends meet, let alone save for retirement or their children’s education, according to the Obama campaign.

Nicholas Letterman left his job in property management to go back to school to retrain as a medical assistant. He graduated Friday and is looking for a job in his new profession. His wife is a health care technician. The Obama campaign said McCain’s policies would offer the Lettermans $113 per year in tax relief, while the Obama plan would provide $1,400, plus additional savings on their health insurance.

But McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said in a statement that Obama’s proposals would hurt American workers, not help them.

“Barack Obama’s agenda to raise taxes and isolate America from foreign markets will not get our economy back on track or create new jobs. Even Barack Obama admits that it’s poor economic judgment to want to raise taxes while our economy is struggling,” Bounds said. “To help create jobs in America, we need to lower taxes and open up foreign markets to American goods.”

Obama was joined at the event by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Lt. Gov. John Cherry and other top Michigan leaders in Congress and Democratic political circles.

Later, he greeted workers at one of Flint’s auto plants.

Obama stood outside the doors of GM’s Flint Engine South plant as workers were leaving for the day. As dark clouds gathered overhead, he shook hands and posed for photos with workers, sometimes standing under an umbrella.

“These guys do great work,” Obama told reporters. “What we need … is to make sure we’re making investments in the kind of technology and innovation that will help this plant compete.”

The plant employs around 600 people and makes 1,800 six-cylinder engines a day, according to plant manager John Freeman.

Obama said his tax plan would save the average American family three times what McCain’s would.

“If you’re making over $250,000 a year, you’ll see your taxes increase modestly,” he said. “That’s not the average person in Flint.”

He also was to attend a Monday evening fundraiser at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, where tickets ranged from $1,000 to $4,600.

The senator also has a planned stop Tuesday morning in Wayne County.


Assocated Press reporter Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this story.


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