AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Friday, April 22, 2011 | 2 a.m.
At a town hall Thursday, when an earnest college student pleaded with President Barack Obama to help higher education stave off serious budget cuts, Obama launched into what could be a pat answer in almost any other state.
He touted the $787 billion stimulus, which included a substantial amount of money to help states with their budget deficits.
“For two years, we were able to prevent some of the worst choices states might have to make about laying off teachers, police officers, firefighters,” Obama said. “Now the economy is growing again, and state revenues are getting a little better.”
Halfway through his answer, however, Obama seemed to remember where he was speaking: Nevada.
“I understand here in Nevada the economy has been the slowest to recover, because this is also where the housing boom was hottest,” Obama said. “So that’s put bigger strains on the budget here.”
Indeed, the unemployment rate is higher in Nevada than anywhere else, foreclosures top the charts and state lawmakers are dealing with a $2.5 billion budget hole opened in part by the evaporation of the stimulus money that had helped Nevada limp through the last two years.
The fact is, the nascent recovery that is taking hold in other parts of the country has yet to sprout here.
And that makes this presidential battleground state, which Obama won by 12 points in 2008, difficult terrain to traverse in his newly launched re-election bid.
“Where we are in this sort of spectrum of recovery versus recession is different,” Democratic consultant Dan Hart said. “The conditions are far more extreme here than in most other states. He’s got to tread very carefully here.”
In his answer to the college student, Obama quickly acknowledged Nevada’s economic situation.But as Obama faces his own difficult budget problems, he had little more than advice to offer Nevada lawmakers.
“I recognize a state like Nevada has to make tough choices,” he said. “I think it is very important, when making those choices, not to be shortsighted.”
Obama acknowledged “additional revenue” might be needed to blunt education cuts in Nevada, but then pivoted once again to make sure the audience knew he had helped negotiate a middle-class tax cut effective this year.
“How many people here know that not only did we cut your taxes when I first came into office, but back in December we just cut your taxes again?” he said. “You wouldn’t know it from watching TV, you would think I’m just raising everybody’s taxes.”
The pivoting is yet another symptom of Obama’s careful gait into re-election mode.
Obama’s visit to Reno was one of three in a campaignlike swing to sell his vision for reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade.
Contrasting his plan with one from Republicans to cut $6 trillion, Obama calls his a “balanced approach” designed to dramatically cut spending, raise taxes on the wealthiest and preserve social programs important to Democrats.
The plan, Obama hopes, will appeal to a broad swath of voters, establishing him once again as the consensus candidate after he pushed through several Democratic initiatives in the first half of his presidency.
That could be key to swinging independent voters, who he carried handily in Nevada three years ago, back into his column.
“Last time, he had the underpinnings of a great economy,” said Michael Dermody, a Reno businessman who has contributed money to both Republican and Democratic candidates and who was invited to attend Obama’s speech by Gov. Brian Sandoval. “Without that, independent voters are a lot wiser.”
If Obama can’t run in Nevada on an economic recovery he helped spur, he can run as a candidate “who gets it,” Democratic strategist Billy Vassiliadis said.
Indeed, several times during his speech, Obama picked up that theme, recounting personal experiences struggling to do his taxes and driving a gas guzzling “beater” when gas prices were high.
The key message in Nevada, could be to at least replace success with empathy.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “It hurts.”