MAUMEE, Ohio—President Barack Obama kicks off his first bus tour of the 2012 campaign on Thursday with news meant to cheer struggling Rust Belt voters: His administration is taking on China over an allegedly unfair trade practice.
Hours before the president was due in Ohio, the White House sent reporters a Toledo Blade report that the Obama administration would take aim at Chinese duties on some American-made cars and SUVs "including the Toledo, Ohio-made Jeep Wrangler." (Eerily excellent timing.)
The World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint will accuse China—a frequent election-year villain blamed for lost American manufacturing jobs—of improperly imposing duties on about $3.3 billion of American exports, the Blade reported. A victory could see China rescind the duties.
Beijing says the fees are a legitimate response to the American auto industry bailout championed by Obama, which China calls an unfair government subsidy.
The WTO complaint could also give the president another opening to hit Mitt Romney, who famously opposed the bailout in stark terms. Ohio is home to a vast auto-parts manufacturing sector that benefited from the auto industry rescue.Obama was expected to hit his Republican rival at stops in Maumee, Sandusky, Parma, Akron, East Liverpool and finally Pittsburgh—his only Pennsylvania stop —before returning to Washington Friday night. The Romney campaign is bracketing the Obama visits with appearances by high-profile surrogates. And ahead of Obama's appearance in Maumee, two small planes could be seen in the sky bearing pro-Romney messages.
Obama won Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2008 and hopes to capture them again in November on the road to securing the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to get a second term. Ohio has 18 electoral voters; Pennsylvania has 20.
A Quinnipiac University Swing State Poll released last week showed Obama leading Romney 47 percent to 38 percent in Ohio, and 45 percent to 39 percent in Pennsylvania.
The president's two-day trek began with a bit of good news on the economic front: The Labor Department reported that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits slipped to the lowest level in six weeks.
Come Friday, all eyes will be on the latest jobs numbers. The economy is the top issue on voters' minds and Obama's most serious vulnerability. Ohio and Pennsylvania both had unemployment rates of 7.3 percent in May—below the national average of 8.2 percent.
Obama's approach has been to blame "headwinds" beyond his control, like the European debt crisis; accuse Republicans of stalling his jobs program; and warn voters that Mitt Romney's economic policies are the same ones that fueled the 2007-2008 meltdown. He has also taken a sharply personal tack, pointing to Romney's wealth and bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere to paint the former Massachusetts governor as out of touch with average Americans. Obama has painted himself as a fighter for the middle class—an argument buttressed Thursday with the well-timed news about action against China.
"As we have made clear, the Obama administration will continue to fight to ensure that China does not misuse its trade laws and violate its international trade commitments to block exports of American-made products," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said as he formally announced the move. "American auto workers and manufacturers deserve a level playing field, and we are taking every step necessary to stand up for them. This is the third time that the Obama administration has challenged China's misuse of trade remedies."
The Toledo Blade reports:
The duties cover more than 80 percent of U.S. auto exports to China, or about 92,000 vehicles. They add 15 percent to the price of an imported Jeep Wrangler or Detroit-made Jeep Grand Cherokee, 21.8 percent to a Buick Enclave and Cadillac CTS produced in Lansing, and 4.1 percent to an Acura TL sedan made by Honda of America Manufacturing Co. at Marysville, Ohio.