MOUNT HOLLY -- The woman had waited for President Obama too long.
The workers invited to see the president here at the Daimler truck plant got herded in early because of security. They’d been standing around a couple of hours. It was warm inside the plant. And so, partway through the president’s speech, she fell out.
“It looks like somebody might have fainted up here,” Obama said, calling for the EMTs. He rescued it with a laugh line: “Folks do this all the time in my meetings.”
The woman was fine. It was just hard to wait so long like that.
Hold that thought.
The president came to Mount Holly to tout clean energy. The Freightliner trucks made at the plant made a nice backdrop, seeing as how some of them are built to burn cleaner and cheaper natural gas.
But this is an election year, so it was also a campaign stop, and Obama had fun with it. He teased the Freightliner employee who introduced him for sounding like a preacher. He joked about his tie having Carolina blue and the Duke shade, too. He said he loves North Carolina: “Even the folks who don’t vote for me, they’re nice to me. They usually wave five fingers.”
He acted loose and confident. With good reason.
Over on the Republican side, primary voters keep trying to run the whole campaign off a cliff like in one of those Indiana Jones chase scenes. Mitt Romney won Super Tuesday, sort of, but he still can’t shed Rick Santorum, who is running one of the finest political campaigns of the 1950s. And Newt Gingrich won Georgia, even though in a general election he couldn’t beat Gen. Sherman.
All those polls you see about Obama being unpopular? They’re true – until you put him next to one of the Republicans. Then he looks like Reagan vs. Mondale.
But there’s a real weak spot – Obama knows it, his opponents know it, and voters know it. It’s the same weak spot you see in the story of this sparkling plant building these massive trucks.
Underneath, the economy is unstable.
One of the reasons Obama came to Mount Holly was so he could mention that the Freightliner plant added more than 1,000 workers last year. Daimler also announced in January that it’s hiring 1,100 people at its plant in Cleveland in Rowan County. That’s all great news.
But back in 2009, the company laid off more than 2,600 workers at those two plants and one in Gastonia. Many of the new hires are workers who got laid off three years ago and are now coming back.
Alan Herrin’s story is a little different. Herrin, who’s 50, was one of the workers who got an invitation to hear Obama speak. He’s been with Freightliner for eight months. He used to work for a company that helped make the doors for Freightliner trucks. What happened to that job?
“Mexico,” he says.
At Freightliner, Herrin inspects trucks as they come down the line to make sure they’re put together correctly. He’s on his feet or under a truck eight hours a day. When I ask him what he uses for a crawler, he smiles and says “these,” pointing to his knees.
But he’s glad to have the job. Freightliner feels like a family to him.
“I hope I’m here ‘til I’m 75,” he says. “But who knows these days?”
Who Knows These Days? could be the theme of this campaign. The unemployment rate is dropping, but millions of people are still without work. The housing market is rebounding a little, but neighborhoods are still dotted with foreclosures.
President Obama can make a case that the economy is growing again after a deep recession. He can also tick off a list of other accomplishments – he saved the car companies, passed a health-care plan, got rid of Osama. But when you’ve been laid off or furloughed or had your pay cut or lost your benefits, none of that other stuff matters so much.
To extend that image from way up at the beginning, people can only wait so long for things to get stable. Then they start dropping out.
It’s March; lots of weird stuff can happen between now and November. (This time four years ago, candidate Obama had just been trounced in Ohio by Hillary Clinton.) But right now, no GOP candidate looks to be much of a match for the president.
Unless the economy dives downward again. There’s no telling what people will do when they start to feel faint.