WASHINGTON - President Obama plans to travel to Ohio for campaign events on Wednesday, the same day that a three-year tariff on the import of Chinese tires is set to expire.
It's not likely that Obama will let that happen, especially on a day when he is in a major tire manufacturing state, a state that is key to victory in the fall election and where many voters blame China for a long list of economic ills.
The tariff, which Obama said in January saved 1,000 U.S. jobs, has been a hot-button issue since the president put it in place in 2009. Republican nominee Mitt Romney wrote in his 2010 book, "No Apology," that the tariff was "bad for the nation and our workers."
"Protectionism stifles productivity," Romney wrote then.
And on Monday morning, the Romney campaign announced a new TV ad that says Obama has allowed China to take 2 million jobs from U.S. workers through intellectual property theft and currency manipulation.
It's the second ad the Romney campaign has released this month hitting Obama over China's role in the loss of U.S. jobs, which is a common complaint among voters in Ohio. The first ad, released Sept. 13, came amid a flurry of Romney jabs at Obama on the issue.
The Obama campaign responded quickly and forcefully earlier this month, indicating an awareness of how these kind of political attacks -- regardless of how complicated the issue actually is -- can move the numbers in a key swing state.
A few days after Romney's Sept. 13 ad, the Obama administration brought a trade complaint against China at the World Trade Organization. The New York Times called the move "a political gesture to Midwestern states" that would have "delayed and limited" effects.
Obama announced the new complaint at a campaign event in Cincinnati.
Romney joked about the trade complaint the same day.
"If I'd known all it took to get him to take action was to run an ad citing his inaction on China's cheating, I would have run one long ago," Romney said at a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles.
On Monday, the Obama campaign again showed its sensitivity to any attacks on the president's record on China and responded immediately with a memo from national spokesman Ben LaBolt, who pointed to the multiple investments by Romney's fund managers in Chinese companies and to the number of trade complaints brought by the administration at the WTO.
But LaBolt also mentioned the tire tariff, calling it "aggressive action against China on behalf of American tire workers."
"When he visits Toledo this week, those tire workers will welcome Romney to remind him that when it mattered most, President Obama stood up for them and he turned his back on them," LaBolt wrote.
The Huffington Post asked LaBolt last week about the tire tariff's pending expiration, but the normally responsive spokesman did not have anything to say about it. A White House spokeswoman on Monday morning also did not return an email requesting comment.
U.S. tire manufacturer stocks fell last week on concerns that the tariff might expire.
However, with the president headed to Ohio and the tire tariff now a gambit in the campaign, as each candidate bills himself as the most committed to "stand up to China," as the Romney campaign puts it, it seems likely that Obama is planning to announce an extension of the tariff at his campaign events in Bowling Green and Kent.
UPDATE: 12:36 p.m. -- A White House official said Monday that the tire tariff will in fact expire, because the United Steelworkers felt that the provision had had the intended effect.
LaBolt, Obama's campaign spokesman, said in an email that "the President's action achieved its goals of saving 1,000 jobs and protecting American businesses against a surge of Chinese tires."
UPDATE: 1:30 p.m. -- A senior Romney adviser, asked Monday whether the tariff should be allowed to expire or not, did not directly answer.
"They were temporary tariffs. It's not a permanent solution," said Romney campaign senior adviser Ed Gillespie on a conference call with reporters. "And like so many things with this administration, we need a more comprehensive approach here; and that's the approach toward China that the governor is going to continue to be talking about, particularly this week in Ohio."
The non-answer from Gillespie -- who has plenty of experience with complicated trade and economic issues from his time working in the White House under President George W. Bush -- indicates the difficulty for Romney in capitalizing politically on the tariff's expiration, having taken exception to it two years ago.
The tariff's expiration on the day that Obama arrives in Ohio may sound an off-note; but if the tariff's primary beneficiary, USW -- which has not requested an extension, according to the White House -- is on board, criticism of the president is likely to be minimal.
UPDATE: 1:47 p.m. -- United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said in an emailed statement that the organization informed the administration in March that it would not request an extension of the tariff.
"Since [Obama's] decision, by every measure, success has been achieved: jobs have been retained and created, production has
rebounded, investments in plant and equipment have been made and many companies have returned to profitability. That’s why the law was enacted, and it worked," said Gerard.
The USW added that "under an unacceptable, but existing provision of international trade law, compensation for a fourth year of relief might have had to be paid to China."
"We refused to pursue an option that could potentially reward China for their actions," Gerard said.
The Wall Street Journal reported in January, however, that the impact of the tariff was negligible because low cost tires started coming into the U.S. from other foreign countries.
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