President’s speech in Jacksonville underscores battle over economy

The tweet from Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry summed up the GOP challenge as President Obama travels to the port of Jacksonville on Thursday to tout the economy and underscore the plight of the middle class.

“@BarackObama in Jax on TH, but it’s @FLGovScott who helped middle class w/JAXPORT $,” Curry wrote.

In the last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature steered $38 million in state transportation money to help deepen a crucial port channel needed for large cargo ships. It is a loan to keep the project moving forward until the federal government completes the lengthy authorization process and starts writing the checks, port officials said.

But the theme — steering credit for successes in the state’s economy to Gov. Rick Scott, while blaming the president for holding it back — is going to be a recurring one for Curry as Scott seeks re-election in the next year.

But economists say that while Obama and Scott have played a role in the economic recovery, it is the Federal Reserve that deserves most of the credit. The federal monetary policy that has kept interests rates low has revved up Florida’s stagnant housing market, provided a lift to the construction industry and helped to reduce unemployment, said two promiment state economists.

Consumers are more optimistic in Florida than they have been since the onset of the recession, said Chris McCarty, an economist at the University of Florida, and the reason is primarily the rise in housing prices. But can Scott or Obama take credit for the uptick in housing prices?

“Most people would argue the answer is no,’’ he said. “Credit Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve.”

“The dramatic stance of monetary policy, with interest rates cut to zero and $1 trillion in mortgage backed securities backed by the feds, have certainly played a role,’’ said Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida. The governor can claim credit, but he doesn’t have the tools that the Federal Reserve has at its disposal, he said, and even the president’s influence is muted.

Those facts are not likely to change the rhetoric in the coming election year, however, as skirmishes over who gets credit or blame for the pocketbook pressures of average Americans make up the campaign narrative.

The Republican Party launched the first missive on Thursday, buying a full-page ad in the Jacksonville Times Union repeating the claim that under Scott’s leadership the state’s unemployment has dropped and jobs have been added — and taking a shot at the president.

“We hope you enjoy Jacksonville, Mr. President,’’ the ad reads. “A lot of folks who visit here and enjoy Florida decide to stay for the jobs and opportunities your policies have denied so much of the country.’’ It also supplies a list of tax cuts and regulation rollbacks under the governor.

When Obama took office in January 2009, Florida’s unemployment was at 8.7 percent, nearly identical to where it is today. It rose to 11.4 percent in January 2010, had dropped to 10.9 percent by the time Rick Scott took office in January 2011 and is now at a four-year low of 7.1 percent, below the national average.

Just as the incumbent president got credit for an improving economy in 2012, Scott is likely to benefit from any uptick under his watch in 2014, said Quinnipiac pollster Peter A. Brown and Democratic pollster Dave Beattie.

“No matter what, the incumbent tends to benefit when the economy improves,’’ Beattie said. “They also tend to give the president more credit and more blame.”

Brown noted that the most recent Quinnipiac University poll gave the governor the highest rating since his election in 2010, just over 40 percent, and pointed to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose job approval numbers used to be as bad as Scott’s but whose numbers rose as the economy in that state improved.

Obama is expected to use his speech Thursday afternoon at the Jacksonville Port authority to go beyond improvements in the economy, however, and renew his call for renewed federal investment in infrastructure and port development. The Jacksonville speech, he said Wednesday, will “offer new ideas for doing what America has always done best: building things.”

Scott has also made the investment in ports a cornerstone of his economic development efforts, dedicating $77 million for a long-sought dredging project in the Port of Miami. But the governor will keep his distance from Jacksonville on Thursday and remain out of state at a Republican governors’ convention.

The president’s remarks are part of a several-week long series of addresses intended to call attention to the renewed plight of the middle class. He began his speaking tour in Illinois on Wednesday, where he returned to the site of his first major economic speech as a young Illinois senator and announced that while the economy has improved under his watch, his “highest priority” will be shrinking the growing gaps in income between the very rich and everyone else.

“This growing inequality, it’s not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics,” he said. “Because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what? Businesses have fewer consumers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America, that idea that if you work hard, you can make it here.”

With new polls showing the president’s approval ratings at their lowest in two years, Obama used his speech to chastise Republicans in Congress for “an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals” that have taken “their eye off the ball.”

Polls show that it is in the president’s interest to distance himself from Congress. A McClatchy-Marist poll conducted last week found Obama’s job approval at 41 percent, his worst showing in the poll since 39 percent in September 2011, while 48 percent of the public disapproved. The drop in job performance numbers come after weeks of rising gasoline prices, revelations about domestic spying and turmoil in the Middle East

The president’s ratings, however, are still better than those of congressional Republicans, who control the House of Representatives. Their approval numbers dropped to 22 percent, while an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll also conducted last week found that 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at and Twitter @MaryEllenKlas