China and Ohio are on opposite sides of the globe. But when Air Force One touched down in Toledo, Ohio on July 5, President Barack Obama had China on his mind.
At the opening event of his Rust Belt Bus Tour – awkwardly-billed as “Betting on America” – the president was quick to announce his administration’s latest effort to level the trading field with China: a formal WTO complaint against tariffs imposed on US autos.
“Americans aren’t afraid to compete,” Obama said, sweating in the stifling summer heat.
“As long as we’re competing on a fair playing field instead of an unfair playing field, we’re going to do just fine. We’re going to make sure that competition is fair.”
“Fairness” is the overarching value Obama has tried to attach to everything from budgets to taxes, to health care and now to China. It is a progressive mantra intended to resonate with anyone who ever attended Kindergarten, an implicit rebuke to the super-rich who they want Mitt Romney to symbolise.
But does it add up?
First, some facts. China is America’s banker – it owns more US debt than any other nation. It is also America’s largest trading partner – a vast market for exports as well as the source of myriad imports.
Despite this mutual economic inter-dependence, there is an inherent uneasiness with the Market-Leninist state among American voters, especially in the Midwest. This had been the heart of American manufacturing in the mid-20th century, before a combination of union costs and globalisation drove many of these jobs overseas in a flurry of outsourcing. Resentment festered, along with the economic anxiety.
And so China has become a potent political football in recent years. Romney has promised to punish it as a currency manipulator on day one of his administration, something that his one-time Republican rival Jon Huntsman – a former ambassador to China – has warned would start a trade war.
In the Tea Party-fuelled campaign of 2010, the airwaves of Ohio were full of ads using Red China as a symbol of the costs of out-of-control debt and American decline.
But two years later, the uneasy American economic recovery is not unrelated to trade with China. Exhibit A in the Obama administration’s argument for re-election is a revived General Motors, which was bailed out by the government over the objections of Romney, among others.
And this year, GM has sold a record 1.2 million cars in China – more than in the US. In fact, China is the state of Ohio’s third largest export market, totalling $2.7 billion, including half a billion dollars worth of machinery.
When I asked the mayor of Toledo, Michael Bell, how populist appeals against China resonate in his swing-state city, he laughed and explained that he’d been to China there three times since taking office. He credits the bailout of the car industry (Toledo has thriving GM and Chrysler plants) as well as trade with China as being key to his success at turning the city’s deficit into a surplus. Mayor Bell sees free trade, albeit with fair rules, as the key to sustained recovery.
No president since Kennedy has been elected without winning Ohio. A 60,000 vote switch from George W Bush to John Kerry here – roughly the hometown crowd for a University of Ohio football game – would have led to a different president being elected in 2004.
So the stakes are high. And while Obama won Ohio in 2008 – and currently leads by half a dozen points – this is ground zero for the white working-class swing voters once known as Reagan Democrats, who Romney hopes to win over.
The Obama campaign’s strategy is to make Romney a symbol of outsourcing, which they say his company, Bain Capital, pioneered during the 1980s.
Team Romney, in turn, hopes to paint President Obama as an elite, weak, and out of touch leader who has tried and failed to turnaround the American economy.
The president’s hope is that the economic recovery in Ohio – which is outpacing the rest of the nation – will give him credibility beyond car-making and union households. The Midwest is the perfect place for the president to present himself as Democratic defender of the squeezed middle class.
Beyond the me-too populist push-back against China, the Obama administration hopes that the president’s unusual strength on foreign policy will help him fight off Republican attacks.
The struggling rust belt will be the ultimate test of Obama’s best bumper-sticker argument for re-election: “Killed Bin Laden, Saved G.M.”