Rather than land curbside in the northeast part along Lake Michigan, where he is most comfortable, the president held two town hall meetings in Henry County, a Republican stronghold in the western part of the state near the Iowa border.
Despite the county’s reputation as a red enclave in a pool of blue, the meetings nevertheless attracted constituents who were either hardcore supporters of the president since the 2008 election or who were not particularly fond of his social agenda but were convinced he was, in fact, not at fault for the nation’s economic struggles.
“I don’t blame him. It’s Congress. It is,” said Terry Dunk, a self-employed businessman whose fast food restaurant and garden center both closed within the past year in nearby Geneseo.
Mr. Dunk says he voted for John McCain three years ago and isn’t convinced his vote in next year’s presidential election will be redirected to Mr. Obama. Still, he echoed many here who said their anger was directed at both political parties and at special interest groups, not necessarily at the president.
Ruth DeDecker of nearby Annawan, who is retired, waited to watch Obama’s bus depart outside Wyffels Hybrids, a corn seed company where Obama held the first of two events. She said her disgust was reserved for “the feud between the Republicans and Democrats carrying all this commotion.”
“The United States should be together to solve all these problems. And they need to do it soon,” Ms. DeDecker said.
Henry County, located about 150 miles outside Chicago, is faring better than many areas in Illinois. Data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security shows that the county reported a 6.9 percent unemployment rate in June, an improvement from the 8.7 rate in the same month one year prior and well below the state rate of 9.2 percent.
In both speeches and subsequent question-and-answer sessions, Obama talked about creating jobs to improve the nation’s infrastructure and pushing for a payroll tax cut for low- to middle-class wage earners. He criticized Republicans for not doing enough to build consensus and for not pressing for legislation such as eliminating corporate tax loopholes.
“Building roads – when did that become a radical idea,” the president asked.
The president’s appearance in his home state is being criticized by local Republican leaders who say residents in smaller communities are being hit hard by what they say is his administration’s failure to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
State Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady told the Associated Press Wednesday that Illinois is becoming a more expensive place to live and work due to high sales taxes, rising unemployment, and a slumped housing market. Illinois voters “pay more taxes, they pay more for groceries, they pay twice as much for a gallon of gas,” he said.