Ohio economy improves, but few feel it

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CLEVELAND — Ohio’s unemployment rate has plummeted over the past three years and is now far below the national average, which might normally be cause for celebration.

But battered by long years of hard times, many voters in this state view the improvement as little more than a mirage: More than two out of three say the economy is either worse or the same as it was a year ago, according to a recent poll.

“Maybe there has been a leveling off,” said Daryl Johnson, 40, who has been in and out of temporary work since leaving his job at a now-defunct auto parts plant in 2005. “But I wouldn’t call it an improvement.”

Ohio is illustrative of the downside of a recovery that many people say they do not feel. There are some new jobs but, as the economy shifts, they do not always match workers’ experiences. Here, as in other manufacturing states, those changes may mean a permanent deflation of incomes and expectations.

The skepticism has not stopped President Barack Obama and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney from rushing in to take credit for the upswing.

The candidates are offering sharply conflicting reasons for the improving economy, further confounding voters. Obama touts government action to save the auto industry as crucial to the recovery. Romney points to the small-government philosophy of GOP Gov. John Kasich for fueling it.

The explanation Ohioans end up believing could go a long way toward deciding the November election in this most pivotal of political battlegrounds, where voters have backed the winner in the past 10 presidential contests.

Complicating the equation for both candidates is that many voters here remain bruised by years of economic hardship, even as Ohio’s jobless rate has dropped from 10.6 percent in the second half of 2009 to 7.2 percent in June.

So the burning question for many voters is less who should receive credit for the improving economy than whether the improving economy is affecting their lives.

“I just filter out all of the campaign noise. I figure things are going to be what they are going to be, regardless of who’s in there,” said Johnson, who recently completed 38 weeks of training to be a pharmacy technician. “These days, job security is a perk. You might get it, but then again you might not.”

In repeated campaign visits to Ohio, Obama has said that the auto bailout saved much of the domestic car industry — which employs about 150,000 workers in the state — while bolstering the state’s manufacturing core.

Romney, meanwhile, has walked a tightrope. He has said that Ohio’s economic growth would be more robust absent Obama’s policies, which he says have stoked uncertainty among businesses, causing them to hold back on hiring.

At the same time, he points to Kasich’s initiatives, including lowering income taxes and reducing government, for promoting growth. If elected, he adds, he plans to bring a similar smaller-government approach to Washington.

“The improvement makes the economic arguments of both parties more complicated, and that will make an already competitive state more competitive,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron

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