LANSING, Mich. – The unemployment rate in Michigan is high, its population is shrinking and scores of manufacturing plants have closed. Still, President Barack Obama's hopes for another electoral victory could depend on voters remembering a time when things were worse.
The industrial state has endured a decade of economic hardship. With native son Mitt Romney as the likely Republican nominee, the president's re-election prospects in Michigan once appeared grim. While the state economy has a long way to go to regain the 857,000 jobs it has lost since mid-2000, voters are telling pollsters they're starting to notice a subtle upswing — and that could be good news for Obama.
"Things seem to be turning the corner," said Mark Kunnert, who runs his family's music store in downtown Mount Clemens, about 20 miles northeast of Detroit. "I'm giving him a shot."
Kunnert has seen more students signing up for music lessons and buying instruments in recent months. He credits the president for initiatives such as the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program, which helped boost Michigan automakers' sales and spur the local economy.
Tony Peterson, a 33-year-old, unemployed Flint resident, said of Obama, "He's definitely trying."
The state unemployment rate was 8.5 percent in March, close to the 8.2 percent national rate and far below the July 2009 peak of 14.8 percent. Personal income in Michigan grew 5.2 percent last year, its strongest rise in more than a decade. And hiring is so brisk that University of Michigan economists recently revised their November forecast for 2012 upward by 22,500 jobs.
Voters' growing optimism is seen in a poll released last week by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA. Fifty-eight percent of 600 likely Michigan voters said the state economy has bottomed out and is starting to improve, a significant change over August 2010, when only about a quarter felt that way.
A majority of those who felt the economy is improving support Obama over Romney, the poll showed, while Romney got more support from the 16 percent who expect it to get worse. About a quarter said the economy wasn't getting better or worse.
The national economy is experiencing a similar upswing, though it's not as strong as voters and Obama would prefer. The Midwest too is seeing an improvement, which further fuels the Obama campaign's optimism — unless employment and other indicators start sliding back.
In Michigan, not all are convinced the improvement has much to do with Obama. Stephen Smith, 55, of Lansing, has worked at McDonald's since losing his factory job. He's leaning toward Romney because he considers him more fiscally conservative.
"We need to swallow a bitter pill and cut spending in government," Smith said.
In seeking support in Michigan, Obama speaks frequently about how the federal bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group led to GM's resurgence as the world's No. 1 automaker and 32,000 more auto-related jobs in the state since the companies emerged from their 2009 managed bankruptcies. Romney opposed the move, even writing a New York Times opinion piece in 2008 that carried the headline "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
"The investment paid off," Obama declared during a visit last October to a once-shuttered Michigan assembly plant that now makes Chevrolet Sonics.
With so many voters worried about the economy, it's clear the president still has a sales job to do in Michigan. Besides the 409,000 residents still out of work in February, the housing market remains weak. The state budget is on solid ground for the first time in a decade under GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, but Michigan still has the nation's fifth-highest foreclosure rate, and nearly 1 in every 5 residents receives food stamps.
"Everywhere I go in this campaign, I meet Americans who are really suffering in the Obama economy," Romney said in Detroit just before the state's Feb. 28 Republican primary, which he narrowly won.
Romney's ties to the state — he grew up in Michigan and his father, George, served as the head of American Motors Corp. and then as governor — may help his effort to win its 16 electoral votes. Recent history is against him, though. Michigan has gone Democratic in every presidential election since Bill Clinton won in 1992.
Yet Democrats don't take Michigan for granted. George W. Bush campaigned frequently in the state in both of his campaigns and lost to Democrat John Kerry by less than 4 percentage points in 2004. Republican John McCain essentially abandoned his Michigan campaign in 2008 to concentrate on other states, allowing Obama to win by nearly 17 percentage points.
State Attorney General Bill Schuette, Romney's Michigan campaign chairman, said he expects a focus on lower taxes, less regulation and increased prosperity to make Romney a winner. The president's repeated trips to Michigan to shore up support just point to "the fragility of Barack Obama's economic message," Schuette said.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said Romney's opposition to the auto bailout will drive away voters who see the industry's revitalization spurring the state's economic rebound.
"There's still a ways to go," Levin said, "but we've come quite a ways."
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