PUEBLO – In this working-class city where steel was the economic muscle of the past and where harnessing the wind offers promise for the future, Cris Gillispie has seen jobs come and go. He’s watched the ranks of unemployed grow and the anxiety index rise in the last few years, but he has some advice: Wait.
“If I were going to say anything to the American people, it’s be patient,” says the 40-year-old firefighter and union activist. “People thought the president could wave a magic wand and the economy would be all better. But we have to deal with reality, and ... it’s going to take time to get us out of this hole.”
About a mile away, Rob Leverington says the problem is not the timetable, but the president’s policies. The health-care bill, the auto bailout, the stimulus? All mistakes, he says. “When the government gets involved, it extends or prolongs the suffering,” the civil engineer declares. “We shouldn’t look for the government to take care of us. That’s what the Communists were doing.”
Colorado, a state split by the Continental Divide, is also emblematic of the national divide. It’s a battleground state where President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are saturating the airwaves, parachuting in and dispatching surrogates to snag nine all-important electoral votes. The debate here about the government’s role in the economy mirrors the polarized attitudes across the country.
Colorado’s recovery reflects the nation, too. A “Swiss cheese economy,” one official dubs it. Some industries and cities are rebounding; others still struggle. In Pueblo, where the jobless rate tends to be higher than normal even during prosperity, unemployment has lingered around 10 percent or higher for the past year. Hard times are not new in this heavily Hispanic community. The steel decline of the ’80s left the city reeling, but it rebounded with new industries; a fairly recent entry was a Danish wind turbine manufacturer. “People here are resilient,” said councilman Chris Nicoll.
But which economy will Colorado voters judge this fall: the improving one or the one lagging behind? The answer to that question will help determine whether this purple state turns blue or red in November – and whether the president gets an extended lease on the White House.
Colorado is sometimes reduced to a postcard image of mountains, ski resorts and cattle ranches. It has tourism and agriculture, for sure. But it’s also home to vast energy resources (gas, oil and coal), aerospace, manufacturing and health care. And it has a large military and government presence, including Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, the U.S. Northern Command, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and more.
The state endured a far-reaching recession and a slow, uneven recovery. Tourism, for instance, posted a record visitor year in 2011, but there are fears the recent wildfires may scare people away. Agricultural land values have remained stable in some places, doubled in others.
Crop prices have soared, though a prolonged drought could be bruising. Construction has stopped hemorrhaging jobs, but it’s a long climb back. A natural-gas and oil boom has brought new dollars and jobs to the northeast part of Colorado, but natural-gas producers grapple with low prices on the Western Slope.
Colorado, according to a state economist, has recovered 82,500 of 151,600 jobs lost in the recession, or 54.5 percent – nearly half in the last year alone. That’s better than the national average of nearly 43 percent. The May unemployment rate of 8.1 percent nearly mirrors the national average (8.2 percent).
Whether these numbers bring hope or despair depends on your point of view.
“There are some people who think the president had no chance to solve it (the recession) because of the deep hole created by somebody else,” said Richard Wobbekind, associate dean at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Others say in the last 3½ years he hasn’t fulfilled his promise, he’s burying us. But the vast majority of people are sort of hanging out in the middle. They see this as an unusual event. If they cast blame, they do it more on the financial system than anything else.”
Obama’s popularity here is a matter of geography.
“Where you stand depends on where you sit in Colorado,” said Martin Shields, an economist at Colorado State University. “If you give a talk in Boulder, everyone thinks he’s great. If you give a talk in Colorado Springs, everyone thinks he’s awful.”
Polls show the president locked in a tight race with Romney in a state where Obama trounced Republican John McCain by about 9 points.