Commuters driving Pittsburgh’s old Lincoln Highway alignment last week caught the last glimpse of the pillars of steam from the Shenango coke plant on Neville Island.
Nearly 60 years after the furnace started producing coke for the once-booming steel industry that personified America’s strength and work ethic, it is closing — affecting 173 union and non-union employees — as yet another business that made things ends its run.
Days later, Pittsburgh-based Koppers, which converts steel-production waste into carbon-based chemicals for aluminum, vinyl and wood preservatives, announced that 52 employees would lose their jobs when it shuts its Clairton plant this spring.
Both life-changing events for long-term employees served as bookends to President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday. Among the many things he mocked in it: anyone who denies that he led a national economic resurgence.
"Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction," he said. He shamelessly went on to embellish statistics, claiming 14 million new jobs, including 900,000 manufacturing jobs.
Afterward, FactCheck.orgshowed that it’s more like 9 million jobs, many of them lower-paying service jobs. And, over Obama’s time in office, manufacturing jobs have plummeted by 230,000.
In short, if you "made" something in the Obama economy, you lost your job; if you "served" someone, you got a job — but probably needed two, so you could make ends meet.
In the Obama economy, wages have not improved; in fact, they have created great unease and not inspired the confidence Americans once had in work — which is why the president has responded by pushing higher wages for service jobs once meant to be temporary bridges from high school and college to adult life.
He needed a straw man for his climate-change regulations that closed manufacturing industries, nearly made coal production extinct and clobbered the shale industry. So he blames companies like McDonald’s for not doubling the hourly pay for entry-level jobs to mask his inability to address the economic setbacks caused by his politics.
The economy is dismal not just in the old Rust Belt but nationwide. On Tuesday, the National Association of Counties released its gold-standard study that shows, six years after the economic expansion began, 93 percent of U.S. counties have failed to fully recover from the devastating contraction they suffered during the recession.
Only 7 percent, or 214 out of 3,069 counties nationwide, recovered by 2015 to their pre-2008 numbers on total employment, economic expansion, home values and unemployment.
Mr. President, the only person peddling fiction appears to be you.
Presidential elections often are equal and opposite reactions to the ideals and policies of the person in charge during economic upheaval, which explains the populist magnetism of Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns.
Trump does not promise detailed policy changes that would make our lives better or more prosperous; instead, he promises that you will no longer be a loser in his economy.
Sanders promises the opposite: detailed policy changes that claim to level the playing field and redistribute wealth top-down to those who feel this economy has lessened their chances for prosperity.
Many Americans are uncertain in so many ways. Their wages and opportunities have stalled, their houses are worth less today than eight years ago; the nation’s educational systems have less funding available today because of the economic contractions; and, in terms of safety and security, we are confused by the president’s foreign policies concerning Syria and ISIS — especially his repeated assertion that ISIS doesn’t threaten the United States in a fundamental way.
As we head into the first primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, we see an electorate so frustrated by Obama’s tin ear on such issues that it has become myopic in its search for an outlet. That voter frustration was sired by Obama’s political presidency which never came close to his promise and ability.
Whether you support him or not, this populist anger and the Trump-Sanders candidacies are the offspring of his leadership, or lack thereof.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).