From his office inside a red brick warehouse in Cleveland, Ohio, Dale Fellows – whose company prints everything from business cards to billboards – exudes satisfaction at Mitt Romney’s aggressive tone on China’s economic policies.

Mr Fellows is chairman of the Republican party in nearby Lake County, carried by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 but which swung to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

The county could be pivotal again this year and, as a 30-year veteran of political battles in America’s industrial rust belt, Mr Fellows thinks Mr Romney’s confrontational attitude on trade will be well received in the region.

“It’s time to push the envelope,” says Mr Fellows. “[The Obama administration] dropped the ball big time – they’ve done just the opposite of what they talked about in 2008 and now we are more subservient and dependent on China than ever before.”

During the presidential campaign four years ago, Mr Obama vowed to take China “to the mat” over its trade policies in an attempt to win over voters who blamed a wave of manufacturing job losses on international competition.

Some of the anxiety in Ohio over globalisation may have waned over the past two years, as America’s industrial sector has started consistently adding jobs again for the first time in more than a decade, and there are even examples of “re-shoring”, or companies moving production back to the US.

The unemployment rate in Ohio has dropped to 7.4 per cent, substantially lower than the national average of 8.1 per cent.

But much of the scepticism about the benefits of free trade remains.

Mr Romney has been seeking ways to tap into that, accusing Mr Obama of breaking his promises to confront China.

However, the strategy runs the risk of alienating some of Mr Romney’s allies in corporate America and on Wall Street, as well as fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Mr Romney maintained a tough stance on China throughout the Republican primary contest, vowing to brand it a “currency manipulator”.

Critics of this stance say it could lead to the imposition of punitive tariffs on a vast swath of Chinese imports, potentially stoking a trade war.

Last week, his campaign made clear that he intended to double down on this message during the general election, releasing an ad that promised Mr Romney would “make China play by the rules” from his first day in office.

But Democrats say Mr Romney’s hard line on China isn’t credible, given his background as chief executive of Bain Capital, an asset management company, and his otherwise full-throated support of free markets.

“I don’t think anybody believes Romney when he says he’s going to stand up to China,” says Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator from Ohio, who is running for re-election this year. “It’s so out of character,” he says.

Tim Burga, president of the AFL-CIO federation of trade unions in Ohio, says blue-collar voters in the state will see through Mr Romney’s rhetoric given his opposition to the Obama administration’s bailout of the country’s car industry, his past in the private equity business and his support for efforts to clamp down on organised labour.

“Romney’s not going to be able to have it both ways,” says Mr Burga, in an interview at his office in Columbus, the state capital.

That is not to say that Mr Obama’s Democratic base is thrilled with the Obama administration’s trade policy, either.

Many would like to see China labelled a “currency manipulator” and some are displeased at the failure to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, both things which Mr Obama pledged in 2008, then dropped.

The administration’s decisions to press ahead with FTAs with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, even with modifications to their labour and environmental standards, were also unpopular.

But the Obama campaign will try to energise its base – and appeal to independent and swing voters – by arguing that the trajectory of US trade policy has nonetheless become significantly more worker-friendly since the days of the Bush administration, while not hampering growth in US exports.

The renminbi has appreciated about 12.5 per cent in real terms against the dollar over the past two years, thought the progress stalled so far in 2012, with the value of the Chinese currency staying essentially flat. The administration does not believe this is sufficient, it says things are moving in the right direction.

And the White House can point to a string of cases it has brought against China at the World Trade Organisation, as well as the duties it has slapped on several categories of Chinese goods.

Mr Obama’s Ohio supporters say the decision to impose duties on Chinese tyres saved jobs at Cooper Tire & Rubber in Findlay, in north-western Ohio, and that the decision to impose duties on steel pipes helped workers at the US Steel plant in Lorain.

“There’s no president that I can remember that has done more for trade enforcement,” says Donnie Blatt, rapid response co-ordinator for the United Steelworkers union in Columbus.

But in Warren, a steel town where RG Steel recently announced hundreds of job cuts, it was clear that attacking a US president’s trade policy was much easier than defending it.

Over lunch at the Hot Dog Shoppe, a culinary landmark featuring a $1.70 frankfurter loaded with cheese and sauerkraut, Marty Riffle, a 54-year-old worker for India’s Tata Steellaments the “garbage” Chinese imports that are still flooding the market. “I really don’t have any faith in Obama whatsoever,” he says.

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