(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump on Wednesday visited a thriving military factory in politically vital Ohio, a symbol of his success at enlarging the U.S. defense budget, as he sought to turn attention from his inability to return jobs to a failing car plant elsewhere in the state.
“You’d better love me, I kept this place open,” Trump told an audience of workers at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, which is owned by the government and operated by a unit of General Dynamics Corp. “They said we’re closing it, and I said ‘no, we’re not.”’
The Lima factory, which is set to grow from 400 employees before Trump’s presidency to 1,000 by year’s end, builds Abrams tanks and Stryker combat vehicles. It stands in stark contrast to another nearby symbol of American manufacturing: General Motors Co.’s Lordstown plant, which has been idled due to slow sales of the car that’s built there.
Trump has blasted GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra over the decision and has also blamed a local union leader for the plant’s closure.
“What’s going on with General Motors?” Trump said Wednesday, declaring that GM should sell the plant if it can’t use it. “Get it open now. Don’t wait.”
Trump can’t take Ohio for granted in his bid for re-election next year. His fortunes may ride on manufacturing jobs, the impact of his trade war with China and the overall state of the economy. Some polling indicates his approval in Ohio has slipped, and Democrats are circling the state, hoping to move it back into their column.
“The tank plant’s doing well, so he’s going there despite cutting defense spending elsewhere to pay for his national emergency,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, referring to Trump’s plan to pay for a wall along the southern U.S. border by reallocating some military funding.
“But on the other hand, Lordstown symbolizes nothing but a broken campaign promise,” Duffy added. “He was going to keep this plant open, he was going to create more jobs there.”
In a weekend tweet, Trump attacked a local United Auto Workers union leader at the Lordstown plant for the factory’s struggles. Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who announced his candidacy for president last week, promptly met with the union leader, David Green, during a swing through Ohio.
Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat, said Trump “recognizes that this General Motors issue can really be detrimental, coupled with the trade deficit, what China’s doing and how he’s messed up the tariff issue.”
“He knows he has a vulnerability here in the Midwest,” added Ryan, who has said he may run for president himself.
The Ohio Democratic Party will emphasize Trump’s decision to raise money an hour’s drive from Lordstown without visiting the GM workers. The campaign and the Republican Party expect to raise $3 million in Canton, according to a Republican National Committee official. Ticket prices start at $2,800, with a dinner ticket price of $50,000 per individual or $70,000 per couple.
“Now he’s lashing out at the workers and blaming them and their leader,” said Democratic state party Chairman David Pepper. “Obviously they’re the victims, not the problem.”
Trump’s push for hundreds of millions of dollars in defense spending benefited the tank program and contractor General Dynamics and has turned around a facility that was at risk of being shuttered during the Obama administration. And its success could have knock-on effects. The steel and parts that supply it come from a handful of other battleground states that Trump took in 2016 and may need again: Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Florida.
General Dynamics Chief Executive Officer Phebe Novakovic was among the dignitaries joining Trump in Lima.
A White House official who briefed reporters before the event said engines from the plant come from Alabama, transmissions from Indiana, gun turrets from upstate New York, specialized armor from Idaho and precision steel from Pennsylvania.
In addition to the Abrams tanks for the U.S. Army, the official said, tanks from the factory are being sold to strategic partners and allies. Kuwait’s fleet counts 218, the Saudis have 374 and Egypt has more than 1,100, the official said. Australia also uses the Abrams.
The president will need that success story to try to change the subject or at least offset criticism over the fate of the Lordstown plant, which assembled its last Chevy Cruze this month. Trump had once vowed to bring back jobs to Lordstown and told workers not to sell their homes. GM last year announced a restructuring cutting thousands of U.S. jobs and with the latest shift closing, another 1,700 jobs are gone.
“This is an attempt to change the conversation on jobs, from Lordstown to Lima,” said David Cohen, a political science professor and assistant director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at Akron University. “Because the president is on video telling the people of Lordstown the jobs are coming back, don’t sell your house. And that is going to be used by the Democratic nominee in numerous commercials in Ohio during the 2020 campaign.”
Loren Thompson -- chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank funded by defense contractors including General Dynamics -- said work at the Lima plant “began really surging after Trump was elected.”
“There is a convergence here between the president’s defense policies and his economic policies,” Thompson said. “Because ‘peace through strength’ in Lima, Ohio, means jobs and it means manufacturing.”
Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, has been moving Republican for years, and Trump defeated Hillary Clinton there by nearly eight percentage points. One of his closest congressional allies has been Representative Jim Jordan, whose district includes Lima. Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, usually sides with Trump but last week voted to overturn the president’s national emergency declaration over the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ohio has also borne the brunt of Trump’s trade war with China and other countries. No other state is more affected by the retaliatory tariffs Canada put in place, and a poll of Ohio manufacturers in January showed that more of the state’s manufacturers were harmed by the trade skirmish than benefited from it, according to a report by researchers at Ohio State University.
Asked whether he wants Trump to come to Lordstown, UAW’s Green told Bloomberg Radio: “Come on out, take a ride, look around. Our community’s in trouble here.”
--With assistance from Mark Niquette.
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