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President Obama stuck to his script in Cleveland Tuesday -- promoting economic competitiveness -- even as labor unrest captured the public's attention 140 miles to the south at the Statehouse in Columbus and also in neighboring Indiana.
Obama was greeted at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport by Ohio's newly elected Republican governor, John Kasich, whose plan to limit state workers' benefits and collective bargaining rights brought some 4,000 demonstrators to the state Capitol, just down I-71.
In Indiana on Tuesday, all but a few House Democrats fled the state rather than take part in motions and procedures leading to a vote on similar legislation rolling back public employee union rights, the Indianapolis Star reported.
The exodus of legislators started last week in Madison, Wis., where the governor insists the state is broke and has threatened layoffs. Democratic state senators bolted for Illinois, denying Republicans a quorum so they could not vote on Gov. Scott Walker's bill demanding more generous contributions from state workers for their health care and pension plans, as well as new limits on bargaining.
In politically important Ohio, Kasich is facing a deficit projected as high as $8 billion in his upcoming two-year budget. Emotions ran high Tuesday. Pro-labor Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), in his eighth term representing a Cleveland district, even bypassed Obama's visit to his hometown to join the demonstration in Columbus.
The scene in Cleveland on Tuesday was more tranquil. At Cleveland State University, the president, accompanied by four Cabinet members, spoke to a roomful of suits at a small business forum. AOL co-founder Steve Case, named by Obama to head a new panel promoting entrepreneurship, also made the trek to Northeast Ohio.
Even with money tight in Washington, Obama said, "we can invest in the things that are critical to our long-term success -- in innovation, so that America stays on the cutting edge, in education so businesses have access to the skilled workers ... in upgrading our transportation and information networks."
The forum divided into break-out sessions -- for entrepreneurs, new media and access-to-capital -- so Obama could hear first hand about the challenges and problems that
small businesses encounter. "We know we still have some challenges," he told them. "I assume that Tim [Treasury Secretary Geithner] has already described to you what we're doing with both the SBA [Small Business Administration] and at Treasury to try to loosen up capital for entrepreneurs and business people."
The Clevelanders seemed appreciative of Obama's time. "If there ever was a 15 minutes of fame for our regional development efforts, this was it," Joe Roman, head of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, told The Plain Dealer. Obama, a basketball fan, even had a quip about the plight of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Asked by a panelist why he had come to Cleveland, he joked, "I just felt bad when Lebron left."
But it wasn't all smooth sailing in the lakeside city. The president got the mayor of Cleveland's name wrong at one point, calling him "Frank Johnson," instead of Frank Jackson. He quickly corrected himself.
"You've been working to reinvent the Rust Belt as the Tech Belt," Obama told the Cleveland forum. "... Your universities, your hospitals, entrepreneurs, businesses have all teamed up to get biotechnology and clean energy from imagination to reality and, as a consequence, you've made Cleveland an emerging global leader in both fields."
En route to Ohio, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had little to say about the planned protest in Columbus. Obama, he said was "focused very much on this important forum -- small business forum" in Cleveland.
Carney said the president made it clear, when asked last week about the Wisconsin turmoil, that "everyone needs to tighten their belts and that includes public sector employees." But, "he also expressed concerns that the efforts, specifically in Wisconsin, were aimed at going right after collective bargaining rights of unions."
Folo Tom Diemer on Twitter http://twitter.com/tomdiemer
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