Political News

Trump travels to the Indiana city some say Obama's economy helped save

Posted May 10, 2018 4:14 p.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump is heading to the Indiana city that Barack Obama took credit for reviving from the depths of the Great Recession to claim his share of the credit for a bustling economy, too.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are set to hold a campaign rally with the Republican Party's new nominee in Indiana's Senate race Thursday night in Elkhart -- a frequent presidential backdrop because of its unique tendency to ride the highs and lows of the national economy.

It's the recreational vehicle-making capital of the world: More than 80% of all RVs are manufactured in the region.

When the economy tanks -- as it had when Obama took office -- Americans' discretionary income evaporates, access to financing dries up and RV sales halt. Elkhart's unemployment was at 20%, at one point the nation's highest rate, when Obama made it the site of his first trip in office in 2009.

When the economy is strong, though, RV manufacturers in Elkhart find themselves with more jobs than they can fill -- turning the city into a Rust Belt success story.

It's why Obama returned to Elkhart for a victory lap in June of 2016, to celebrate an unemployment rate that had plummeted to 4%, with graduation rates and housing indicators up too, years after his rescues of the automotive and financial industries and his $800 billion stimulus, which included a grant he'd traveled to the region to announce.

"President Obama came in 2016 to collect credit for the unemployment rate going from 20% to 4%. And now Trump wants to come collect credit for it going from 4% to 3%," said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of nearby South Bend, who is seen nationally as a rising star in Democratic politics.

But Obama was never given much political credit in Elkhart County, which is home to the sorts of white working-class voters who have abandoned the Democratic Party in recent elections.

He lost there by 10 percentage points in 2008, even as he won Indiana that year, and by 26 points against Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump trounced Hillary Clinton by 32 points there in 2016.

Now Trump is traveling to Elkhart to embrace Mike Braun, the businessman and former state representative who won Tuesday's GOP Senate primary in Indiana, and to tout his own tax record.

His strongest selling point is likely to be the tax bill.

RV manufacturer Winnebago was among the companies to hand employees $1,000 bonus checks this year.

"The tax reform was great," said Scott Degnan, the vice president and general manager at Winnebago. "It's allowing us to be a little bit more benevolent and allowing us to be involved in more giving."

At the same time, RV manufacturers could be among the casualties of a trade war triggered by Trump's decision to impose steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from China.

Those tariffs "could and likely will present some pressure," Degnan said, adding that "overall, we think we'll get through it fine."

Michael Hicks, an economics professor at northeastern Indiana's Ball State University, says at least one thing is certain: Presidents will continue visiting Elkhart due to its unique status as a laboratory for the overall economy for the next generation due to the "breathtakingly high risk" that automation poses to the RV industry.

"Every president's going to be coming to Elkhart for he next 15, 20 years," he said.