With a 9.6 percent jobless rate, many South Carolinians are struggling to find work. Others have given up looking jobs or are underemployed, working part time instead of full time.
President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney are offering those South Carolinians – and the rest of the nation – very different fix-its for the struggling economy.
Unsurprisingly, there is partisan disagreement over which economic vision is better for South Carolina.
“I’m not better off than I was four years ago,” said Kevin Thomas, a medical sales representative who supports Romney. “People I talk to, they’re not either.
“People are working hard and trying to make a living and raise a family, but gas has gone up, groceries have gone up, health care has gone up,” Thomas said. “And wages have gone down.”
But Marcia Seawright, a literacy coach at a Midlands school and a student at the University of South Carolina, where she is working on her doctorate, sees an economy that is coming back. “I’ve seen improvements. I’ve seen friends and family who have lost jobs, lost homes. But things are turning around for many people.
“It takes time for the economy to recover,” Seawright said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, not with what he (Obama) inherited.”
Whether Romney’s or Obama’s economic plan would be better for the nation – and South Carolina – largely depends on a voter’s economic philosophy.
Romney, a former businessman and Massachusetts governor, says he will create 12 million new jobs during his first term as president by improving the overall business climate, including cutting taxes, simplifying or eliminating some government regulations, and cutting government spending.
Obama’s supporters scoff that tax cuts have not produced jobs over the last decade and say less regulation led to Wall Street’s collapse and the Great Recession. And with the economy weak, they insist government must spur demand, “investing” in key areas to stimulate growth.
Romney’s philosophy is more popular in Republican-dominated South Carolina.
Thomas, chairman of the Fairfield County Republican Party, thinks Romney can turn the economy around, in part, by repealing federal health insurance reform and its regulations.
“The hospitals I visit for work, they’re still getting new information every day (related to health-care reform) – another regulation, another rule they’re going to have to implement and what it is going to cost them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Democrat Obama’s camp argues the president has set the country on the path to recovery and deserves another four years to implement his jobs plan, creating new jobs through short-term efforts to stimulate hiring, and longer-term efforts to promote “green technology” jobs and education to prepare the nation’s future workers.
“All I hear is, ‘Four more years. Four more years,’ wherever I go,” said Seawright. “We’re totally behind him. We believe in him.”
As proof of economic success during his first term, Obama points to 4.4 million new private-sector jobs created in the past 28 months, the bailout that saved the U.S. auto industry and a manufacturing sector that shows signs of resurgence.
Now, Obama says, the nation needs to focus on creating a million new U.S. manufacturing jobs by 2016.
The country currently has 12 million manufacturing jobs, the same number it had in spring 2009. But, after a drastic decline in recent years, there are signs of improvement.
That’s also true in South Carolina, where nearly 33,000 manufacturing jobs were lost from 2007 to 2011, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This year has seen a slight rebound with 222,200 South Carolinians employed in manufacturing, up from 216,200 in 2011, according to preliminary bureau figures.
But Lewis Gossett, president of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, says no politician should try to lay claim to that resurgence.
Instead, Gossett said low natural gas prices in the United States, compared with energy costs in other countries, are one of several market factors that have aided manufacturing. Natural gas powers manufacturing facilities and is key in making materials.
Gossett, whose group is traditionally conservative, says Obama could do far more to aid the state’s manufacturers. “The Obama administration is frustrating, to say the least, when it comes to helping manufacturing and helping our economy,” he said.
As proof, Gossett points to the National Labor Relations Board’s threat to sue plane-maker Boeing for building a new plant in North Charleston and new regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency that require manufacturers to meet stricter environmental standards, calling both “anti-manufacturing.”
Democrats defend the actions as efforts to protect workers and the environment.
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, says the negative impact of a second Obama term on South Carolina’s economy would be real and immediate.
As an example, Mulvaney cites officials of S.C. wood and paper companies who tell him they are concerned about increased environmental regulation during a second Obama term.
In recent meetings with Chester Wood Products, Domtar Paper, Resolute Forest Products, Scotts Miracle-Gro and others, Mulvaney said he has fielded questions about one new environmental regulation in particular. It is set to take effect in January and was pushed through by Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency.
“All of them have uniformly expressed serious concerns,” Mulvaney said of the regulation, which would require businesses that use boilers and incinerators – “an integral part of wood and paper” – to install technology to reduce harmful air pollutants, including mercury, by 2016.
The EPA says the new standards will offer major public health benefits, preventing thousands of premature deaths and heart attacks each year.
But Mulvaney contends the environmental benefits are tiny, while the impact on South Carolina’s multimillion-dollar wood-and-paper sector will be enormous.
“It’s absurd because the federal government is putting private industry in a position where, very soon, every one of them will be in violation and it will give the federal government broad discretion,” Mulvaney said. “They could fine them a little. They could fine them a lot. They could choose to close these companies down.”
A similar regulation, requiring the cement industry to meet tougher pollution standards, also is set to take effect soon. Mulvaney said that one also has his phone ringing.
“This will inevitably mean jobs shipped overseas,” said the Republican congressman. “These are real and immediate jobs lost in South Carolina the day these regulations kick in.”
Like Mulvaney, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, voted against the boiler and concrete regulations because of concern that they could affect S.C. jobs.
But he says such regulations are only a small issue compared with Obama’s plan to improve the economy and create more jobs.
He points to what has happened to South Carolina during Obama’s four years as proof of the president’s ability to grow S.C. jobs.
“The economy is coming back because of everything we got done during the first two years of the Obama administration. The last two years, we’ve gotten nothing done because of Republicans,” Clyburn said, referring to the GOP takeover of the U.S. House in 2010.
Clyburn says stimulus money, passed during Obama’s first year in office, is paying for S.C. water, sewer and other infrastructure projects, and providing hundreds of jobs in historically poor parts of the state, including Orangeburg, Marion and Williamsburg counties.
Stimulus money also helped pay for cleanup work at the Savannah River Site, paying for about 3,000 new jobs there, he added. “Without the president’s help, that would have never happened.”
Obama’s pledge to accelerate expansion plans of five ports, including the port of Charleston, so they can handle new shipping after the Panama Canal’s expansion, also has earned him applause, even from Republicans, including U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint of Greenville and Lindsey Graham of Seneca.
Obama’s campaign pledge to pass a new law to spend $50 billion to rebuild the country’s infrastructure during his second term also promises more jobs for the state, Clyburn said.
“There are those 6,000 bridges that AAA says must be replaced. We’ll tackle that problem. We’ve got roads and infrastructure capacity problems in this state that go back for years and years. We’ll get to work on that,” Clyburn said, adding new school buildings also are on the list. “This is all good for S.C. communities and the state.”
Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.