President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn after arriving on Marine One at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 29, 2016.
Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Obama may not get credit, but Elkhart’s success matters

When the Great Recession ravaged the global economy, there wasn’t a community in the United States that didn’t feel the effects. But for some observers, the northern Indiana city of Elkhart became a unique symbol of America’s troubles – and its opportunities.
 
In 2009, President Obama twice visited Elkhart to tout his economic agenda in an area in desperate need of a boost. The unemployment rate in the city in early 2009? A crushing 20 percent, up from 5 percent two years earlier.
 
At the time, the president spoke to NBC’s Chuck Todd before an event in the community, and Todd asked if it’d be “fair” to use the city as a case study – if what happened to Elkhart in the Obama era could credibly represent the success or failure of the White House’s agenda. “Absolutely,” the president replied.
 
In the months that followed, MSNBC created an online venture called “The Elkhart Project,” monitoring the city’s progress as Obama’s policies started to take effect.
 
Seven years later, it’s hard to deny a simple truth: Elkhart is a success story. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
Seven years ago President Obama came to this northern Indiana city, where unemployment was heading past 20 percent, for his first trip as president. Ed Neufeldt, the jobless man picked to introduce him, afterward donned three green rubber bracelets, each to be removed in turn as joblessness fell to 5 percent in the county, the state and the nation.
 
It took years – in 2012, Mr. Neufeldt lamented to a local reporter that he might wear his wristbands “to my casket” – but by last year they had all come off. Elkhart’s unemployment rate, at 3.8 percent, is among the country’s lowest.
Obviously, no president can take all of the credit or all of the blame for the economy in one mid-sized community. It’s a big country, with a massive economy, and a variety of factors contribute to local and regional growth.
 
But seven years ago, Elkhart wasn’t just struggling, it’s unemployment rate eventually reached 20 percent. Obama received a specific challenge – could his policies be judged by this one city’s recovery? – which he gladly accepted. And now, Elkhart is actually better off than it was before the Great Recession even began.
 
Of course, the point of the New York Times piece that ran yesterday is that President Obama isn’t getting much credit in northern Indiana for the area’s turnaround. In fact, the formerly unemployed worker with the three green rubber bracelets who introduced the president at an event in 2009 is now thinking about voting for Donald Trump – even though the Republican frontrunner “scares me sometimes,” the man said.
 
The Times spoke to the former mayor of the neighboring community.
“Whether [the president] gets the credit or not, people’s home equity has gone back up, fuel prices are the best we’ve had in a long time, there’s a lot of things that make this all go,” Larry Thompson, a former longtime mayor of nearby Nappanee and a Republican, said as he showed off an expanding cabinetry factory, Kountry Wood Products.
 
“But I think that maybe it’s just some of the other things he’s been involved with that people in our area” – Mr. Thompson stopped, shaking his head in unspoken reference to various social issues.
Whether or not Obama gets credit for his successes is of interest when it comes to shaping his legacy, but at a certain level, the proof itself is difficult to overlook. When the president went to Elkhart in 2009, it faced dire straits and 20 percent unemployment. Obama said at the time that the public could judge his record by where Elkhart stood after the administration’s agenda took effect.
 
Seven years later, I don’t know whether or not Elkhart is inclined to thank Obama, but I do know the city’s economic turnaround is a story the White House can be proud of.

Barack Obama and Indiana

Obama may not get credit, but Elkhart's success matters