Michael Barone

"A step in the right direction." That's what Barack Obama said in Poland, Ohio, about Friday's Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment report, which showed only 80,000 net new jobs and unemployment remaining at 8.2 percent.

The thought will occur to many, not all of them Obama detractors, that this was at best a baby step. It's not enough to keep up with population growth, much less to restore the low unemployment rates of most of the 1990s and 2000s.

Another thought will occur to professional amateur political strategists: Why did the president's campaign schedule a two-day bus tour of northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to coincide with the day the unemployment numbers were announced?

Sure, Ohio and Pennsylvania are important states politically. They have 18 and 20 electoral votes, and Obama carried them in 2008 with 51 and 54 percent of the votes.

And current polling shows Obama with only 46 percent in Ohio and 47 percent in Pennsylvania when paired against Mitt Romney.

Obama's bus tour was aimed at the historically Democratic Rust Belt territory. Since the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers and United Rubber Workers organized the steel, auto and rubber factories on Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and Toledo, this has been prime Democratic territory.

Even in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was winning a 59 to 40 percent landslide, this Rust Belt -- 19 counties of northern and eastern Ohio and 14 counties of western Pennsylvania -- voted 52 to 47 percent for Walter Mondale. It was 12 points more Democratic than the national average.

If these 33 counties had been a single state, they would have cast 19 electoral votes for Mondale, more than doubling the 13 he won from his native Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

In the 1980s, the Rust Belt was still smarting from factory closings and heavy job losses in the recession of the late 1970s. Most of those lost union-wage jobs never came back, and angry laid-off factory workers and their families were unpersuaded by the Reagan campaign's claim that it was "morning in America."

In the years since, the economy of the Rust Belt has changed. The biggest employers in Cleveland and Pittsburgh these days are not steel mills but hospital complexes.

There has been considerable outmigration of young people, and from 1980 to 2010, the population of these 33 counties declined by 7 percent, while the national population increased by 36 percent. If they were a single state, they would have 14 electoral votes, down from 19 three decades ago.


Michael Barone

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2011 THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM