The Obama campaign has a simple argument to make to those who say the economy has been bad under the president: Just imagine if Mitt Romney had been in charge.
"The guy's against our automobile industry for goodness sake, and that doesn't bode well in Ohio," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. He is referencing Romney's position - articulated in a 2008 column headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" - that Democrats have used (not entirely fairly) to suggest that Romney was willing to let the U.S. auto industry disappear.
The Ohio Democratic Party, with the backing of Politifact, says that 850,000 jobs in Ohio are tied to the auto industry, jobs that would have disappeared without Mr. Obama's decision to use government support to restructure two of the "Big Three" auto companies. They say that without that decision, communities like Lordstown, Ohio - where the General Motors plant, which employs more than 10,000 people, reinstated its third shift in 2010 - would have been left behind.
Chrysler and GM recently hired nearly 2,000 workers in Toledo, where mayor Michael Bell says the auto industry is "one of our anchors." Bell said the city has seen a major economic turnaround in the past three years.
"A large portion of that is tied to the money that was given to the automobile industry that allowed people to go back to work," he said. Beck, of Ohio State, predicted that Mr. Obama "is going to get a lot of voters as a result of the auto bailout, particularly among white working class males."
Also benefiting the Ohio economy - and by extension Mr. Obama - has been the nascent economic boom tied to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which has given communities like Youngstown, Ohio, a chance at rebirth following the collapse of the steel industry. On the Mahoning River, construction is nearing completion on a new $650 million plant to make the steel tubes used to extract natural gas from underground shale deposits. Twenty million dollars in federal economic stimulus funds was used to help get the project off the ground.
"We feel like this is an opportunity for us," said Tony Paglia, Vice President of Government Affairs at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We feel like we have been in decline a long time. We want to take advantage of this. We want to make sure it's done right. But we feel pretty lucky in a way that we have another opportunity. We had the steel industry for 100 years or so. Now we're an oil and gas area."
Redfern, of the Ohio Democratic Party, notes that Ohio's unemployment rate has fallen from 10.6 percent in 2009 to 7.3 percent today -- complicating efforts by Ohio Republicans to argue that Mr. Obama has been a poor steward of the economy. He says that attacks on Romney as a potential "outsourcer-in-chief" will resonate in a state where manufacturing remains part of the fabric of everyday life. (Expect Vice President Joe Biden to offer up those sort of attacks when he comes to Columbus Thursday on what is being billed as the "Made in Ohio Manufacturing Tour.")
"The recession was not his doing," Redfern said of the president. "Our policies are what's driving the Midwest out of this Republican recession."
Scott Jennings, Romney's campaign manager in Ohio, argues that voters in the Buckeye State don't see things that way. The GOP message, he said, is this: "Do you think the country is better off than it was four years ago? Do you think you are better off personally? And if not - if not - do you think it's time for a new president?"
Romney, who argues that Mr. Obama is the true outsourcer of American jobs, will make that case during a town hall meeting in the northwestern city of Bowling Green on Wednesday. On the trail, Romney has criticized Mr. Obama for over-regulating American industry - often offering up the president's decision not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline as Exhibit A - and Ohio Republicans say they can depress Democratic turnout and energize their base by casting Mr. Obama as hostile to the coal industry.
"Democrats in rural areas have turned on Obama," said Jennings.
While some areas of the state have started to emerge from the worst of the recession, there remain plenty of regions where residents' economic prospects remain grim. In one striking example, law enforcement officials recently raided eight massage parlors in the once-booming steel town of Warren, which authorities say had become a mecca for prostitution.
The economic picture is not much better in the economically-depressed steel and coal town of Steubenville, in the southeastern part of the state. Employment specialist Dave Higgins, who worked for 40 years in a steel mill, says that the gas and oil jobs that residents had expected to replace steel and coal jobs had for the most part yet to materialize.
(At left, Obama supporters in Steubenville, Ohio, discuss why they support the president.)
"People are waiting for gas and oil to save them," he said. "I don't believe that they will. We have to get manufacturing jobs back in this country. That's all there is to it."
Down the street at Peedee's restaurant, a reporter's questions prompted an argument about politics. After one waitress deemed Obama a "big spender," a man emptying the trash said, "Wait a second. Bush put us in that f***ing hole."
"Well he put us in a hole bigger," the waitress replied, speaking of Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama did not perform particularly well in this region in 2008, something many political observers attributed in part to his race. (Beck of Ohio State University said the best estimates he has seen show that Mr. Obama lost 2-3 percent of the vote in Ohio in 2008 because of his race, with most of the impact coming in this region.) The three Peedee's employees said the president's race surely plays a role in how people in the area vote; asked if Romney's religion mattered to voters here, they said they didn't even know what it was. (Romney is Mormon.) Two then incorrectly identified Mr. Obama's religion as Muslim.