If you want to understand why President Obama’s job-approval level has fallen to 38% among independents in Ohio — the most important “swing state” in the electoral system — then take a look at what our Republican-holdover defense secretary is saying about weapons systems. Having already wiped out hundreds of thousands of jobs with weapons cuts last year, he now is threatening a presidential veto of the entire 2011 defense spending bill if Congress has the temerity to fund more C-17 cargo planes or an alternate engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter. In the midst of an economic crisis, when presidential popularity is defined largely by the jobs issue, this Pentagon seems oblivious to the political fallout caused by its spending priorities.
The C-17 is the last large aircraft designed to military specifications being built in the United States. It is also the best jet-powered airlifter ever built, assembled on the last aircraft production line in the Los Angeles basin (one of the densest concentrations of voters in America). And then there is the alternate engine for the F-35 fighter, which at the moment isn’t much of anything other than an industrial subsidy for General Electric at the expense of its New England rival, Pratt & Whitney. But the alternate engine will be built in and around Ohio and Indiana, two states that Democrats will be very challenged to hold onto in the next election.
Secretary Gates may not be oblivious to these facts, but he certainly is ignoring them. Which is one reason why his tenure at the Pentagon could end up being more long-lived than Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Voters have come to believe that the Democrats don’t know how to create private-sector jobs, and the Pentagon is helping Republicans to tell that story. The F-22 fighter that Gates finally succeeded in killing last year had 25,000 jobs, mostly high-paying, union jobs, directly associated with its assembly. Some multiple of that number also benefited indirectly from the program. And like the C-17, the F-22 is by far the best plane of its type ever built. But Gates decided to kill that program at barely half the number the Air Force said it needed, and now he wants to kill the C-17 on the argument that 200 planes are enough to get us through the next 30 years or so. Even though we are flying the planes so heavily that some will begin reaching the end of their service lives only a few years after the production line shuts down. And even though countries like India and Britain have begun ordering C-17s for their own fleets.
Personally, I don’t see any good reasons for funding the alternate engine. But if I was sitting in the White House, looking at the President’s declining poll numbers, I would wonder why the Pentagon always seems to have something negative to say about the outlook for jobs in swing states like Colorado, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Many of the programs it is cutting could have contributed not just to job creation and retention — supposedly an administration priority — but also to the doubling of exports that President Obama made a goal in his State of the Union speech. Right now, the Pentagon’s main export initiative seems to be making the world safe for Afghanistan’s opium producers. It might be worthwhile for the White House to spend some time explaining to Gates and his advisors that if the administration can’t do a better job of creating and preserving jobs, they too are likely to be pounding the pavement in search of new positions.
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