POLITICS

Obama's Favorite City To Spotlight Is Filled With People Who Distrust Him

The president loves coming to Elkhart, a place that's undergone a major revival. So why doesn't Elkhart love him back?

WASHINGTON -- In the summer of 2008, Andrea and Andrew Hauser of Elkhart, Indiana, were confidently planning out their lives. They'd bought a home the year before, and in August, they found out they'd be having their first child.

Then it all started to unravel. By that fall, the recession sweeping across the country had struck Elkhart and almost flattened it. The city was a major hub for the RV industry, and as the U.S. economy fell in on itself, not many people were interested in buying luxury vehicles.

The Hausers, who worked in the industry, weren't spared. Andrea lost her job first. Three weeks later, while driving back from a trip to spend Thanksgiving with family in Georgia, Andrew got a call saying that his company was going out of business.

Plenty of others were in the same boat. Andrea's brother and father were soon jobless, and she estimates that eventually, 75 percent of their friends were without work too. They'd have parties where they'd eat, play cards and exchange bleak jokes about the economy. The Hausers got by on unemployment insurance. But half of it was going to the $800 a month Andrea had to pay for COBRA coverage, since her pregnancy meant that she couldn't afford to go without health insurance. They cut back elsewhere, shopping for cheaper groceries and never going out for dinner.

"It wasn't the end of the world," Andrea recalled. "But it was easy to feel like we were going to experience what our grandparents experienced during the Great Depression."

But gradually, things started to get better. In February 2009, President Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill. The benefits would take a while to trickle down to Elkhart, but one change came quickly to the Hausers: The government now covered two-thirds of Andrea's COBRA costs. "If that had not happened, we would not have been able to pay our mortgage," she said.

Soon after, Andrew got a job. So did Andrea's brother. The country's economy was improving, the RV industry was coming back and jobs were coming back with it.

On Wednesday, Obama will travel back Elkhart in a swing that certainly seems like a victory lap. He stopped by the town several times during the 2008 campaign, and Elkhart was the first city Obama visited as president, back when the local unemployment rate was hovering over 17 percent. Currently it is 3.8 percent, one of the lowest jobless rates in the nation.

But while Obama is expected to spend the day touting his economic successes and the resilience of Elkhart's residents, it won't be a mutual lovefest. Even many people there whose lives were tangibly improved by his administration aren't starry-eyed fans of the president.

Andrea, now 33, can't recall whether she voted for Obama in 2012. She's not planning to vote for his likely Democratic successor, Hillary Clinton, in 2016, saying she'd prefer a third-party candidate. Andrew, who said he believes Obama deserves more credit for the work he did in turning around the economy, nevertheless didn't vote for Obama or his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, four years ago. Like his wife, he isn't too pleased with his choices in 2016 either.

"It's hard. It's difficult. I would like to give him a little sense of encouragement," Andrew, also 33, said. "Personally, I can't say [that] everything about him, I'm all about. But I'm also not a type of person who thinks our president should get bashed every time for one reason or another."

Obama visited Elkhart in February 2009 to pitch his stimulus bill.
Obama visited Elkhart in February 2009 to pitch his stimulus bill.

The Hausers are not a microcosm of Elkhart. They applaud the work done by Obama and plan to attend his event on Wednesday. But as Jackie Calmes of The New York Times recently reported, much of the rest of the city, which is reliably Republican, is far more skeptical of the president.  

Still, the Hausers' story underscores a larger problem that has vexed this president since his earliest days in office: how to reap tangible political benefits from his economic policies, or, failing that, how to succinctly explain the ins and outs of those policies at all.

According to data gathered by ProPublica, Elkhart received nearly $170 million in funds made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- about 2 percent of the $8.7 billion sent to the state of Indiana as a whole. But when asked for thoughts on how the stimulus had helped them, many recipients said they were unaware they'd even benefited from it.

"I did not receive a loan through the stimulus program, sir," said an official with Namacle LLC, a company that appears to manufacture gun parts. In fact, Namacle received two loans through the Small Business Administration, for a total of $350,000, via money made available by the Recovery Act, according to ProPublica's data.

The official confirmed the SBA loans but declined to say what he'd used the money for. "That's private information," he said.

I did not receive a loan through the stimulus program, sir. A recipient of a Small Business Administration loan made possible through the stimulus.

Not all stimulus beneficiaries flat-out denied having gotten money through the program. But most seemed completely unaware that the loans they received or the grants they were awarded were made possible by that bill. A receptionist at Goshen Chiropractic Center PC, which got a $119,000 SBA loan, said she "certainly didn't recall" the company getting that money. A manager at McCarthy's on the Riverwalk, a restaurant that received a $213,000 SBA loan, said she hadn't been there long enough to know about the money McCarthy's received in 2009.

Leanne Brekke, who used to run Indiana Micro Metal Etching company, said she didn't know the SBA loans she received -- more than $500,000 in total -- were made possible through the Recovery Act. Brekke used that money to buy the company, she explained. But she sold it a few months ago out of concern that taxes and the possibility of a forced minimum wage hike would make her business unprofitable, if not completely untenable.

"I'm not a big President Obama fan," Brekke said. "I'm voting for Trump."

There are any number of reasons -- besides sheer confusion -- as to why Obama doesn't get more credit for his economic agenda in places like Elkhart. For one, the stimulus wasn't a universal success. PBS reported that even as jobs came back to town, "the average take-home pay in Elkhart-Goshen had dropped 22 percent -- down from nearly $74,000 in 1999 to almost $58,000 in 2014."

Three relatively high-profile electric car ventures fizzled in the town despite high expectations. And while unemployment has gone down, it's debatable how much of that is a result of the president's legislation. The Recovery Act didn't prop up the RV industry, after all. But it did spark an economic turnaround strong enough to breathe new life into the luxury vehicle market.

"The connection between what the government intervention did and the rebirth of the RV industry, the explosion of the RV industry, is not a direct connection," said Kyle Hannon, president and CEO of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce. "There probably is a line, but it is not a straight one."

"The types of stimulus projects you have here would be redoing a runway, which is a big project," Hannon went on. "But we don't have a commercial airport. Most citizens won't touch that airport. But I can't say it was a bad idea. We had five chamber members who got business from that project."

The White House doesn't dispute the idea that the president has fallen short in the selling of his agenda. Though Obama's approval on the economy has been consistently high in recent months, there is a reason he is traveling to Elkhart. He wants to convert the still unconverted. 

"Elkhart is not Obama country but he believes engaging in a constructive way with people who disagree with you is not only a vital part of democracy, but one that there is far too little focus on today," Obama's communications director, Jennifer Psaki, told The Huffington Post. The president, she added, wants to discuss "not only how far we have come, but where we go from here."

Elkhart is the RV capital of America. When people stopped buying these luxury vehicles, the city hit hard times.
Elkhart is the RV capital of America. When people stopped buying these luxury vehicles, the city hit hard times.

Obama certainly has fewer fans in Indiana than when he first started showing up there. In the 2008 election, he squeaked past Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Hoosier State 49.8 percent to 48.8 percent. Four years later, he lost the state to Romney 54 percent to 44 percent. Few expect Clinton to best Donald Trump in Indiana come November.

"There are a bunch of Republicans here. Let's be honest, it's Indiana. It's a very Republican area and conservative in many ways, so it's going to be hard to sway their opinion," said Andrea Hauser. "There are certain social issues that I think people can't get past."

And so while Obama would love nothing more than to turn a tale of a saved city into a springboard for Democratic votes, he'll likely make limited progress this week. People don't always vote with their pocketbooks, as Hauser pointed out. Sometimes, in fact, they don't vote at all.

Take Elijah Wiggins, who completed advanced technical study coursework using ConnectED-donated software at Elkhart Area Career Center while he was in high school. ConnectED is an Obama-led initiative to outfit schools with next-generation broadband technology. It allowed Wiggins to learn how to draft 3D models. The coursework led to an internship and then to a part-time job, which he still holds today in addition to studying at a local community college.

"Honestly," he said of Obama, "I don't think he gets a whole lot of credit for everything that he does. I know a lot of kids who didn't realize that our software was donated or that he was even working to help us out with it."  

This will be the first presidential election in which Wiggins, who turned 18 this year, is allowed to vote. But he won't be casting a ballot.

"I didn't end up registering," he explained.

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