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Obama Finds Re-Election a Tougher Sell With Economy Dragging

U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Lisa Hensley was thrilled when President Barack Obama unexpectedly showed up during the lunch hour at the Countryside Barbeque in Marion, North Carolina, a town of about 8,000 along the Blue Ridge Mountains.

A registered Democrat, the 50-year-old accountant echoed the president’s message on his three-day bus trip through North Carolina and Virginia: “We need to be for America, not just for Democrats or Republicans,” Hensley said.

Still, she said she won’t be voting for Obama next year.

“Not unless something changes dramatically,” she said after Obama greeted diners on Oct. 17. “It would have to be something monumental.”

Hensley’s dissatisfaction with the president stems from the performance of the U.S. economy, and it underscores a central challenge for Obama’s re-election campaign in the battleground states that he won in 2008: His ability to deliver the kind of change Hensley wants is limited.

With opponents framing the 2012 election as a referendum on the president’s handling of the economy, Obama is using a three-day bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia that ends today to sharpen his attacks against Republicans, who have blocked his latest plan to use a combination of tax cuts and government spending to reignite growth and hiring.

Now he wants Congress to take up components of the $447 billion proposal he offered last month.

“We’re going to give them another chance to listen to you, to step up to the plate, to do the right thing,” Obama said last night at Greensville County High School in Emporia, Virginia. “We will give them another chance to do their jobs so that you can keep your job, or get a job.”

Battleground States

Obama won Virginia and North Carolina, two Republican-leaning states, in 2008 and their combined 28 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. He is trying to hold both next year, especially as he will likely be battling to keep swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania in the Democratic column.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate is above the national average, at 10.4 percent. While that is down from the high point of 11.3 percent in February 2010, it is well above the 4.7 percent rate the state experienced in June 2007.

Virginia, which has a broader base of military and other federal government jobs, wasn’t hit as hard by the recession. Still, the jobless rate there rose to 7.2 percent in December 2009 from a low of 2.8 percent in March 2007. It was 6.3 percent in August.

Job Approval

An Oct. 6 Public Policy Polling survey shows just 44 percent of North Carolinians approve of Obama’s job performance, and 53 percent disapprove. The president’s narrow win in North Carolina in 2008 -- by 0.3 percent of the vote -- made him the first Democratic presidential nominee to capture the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

An Oct. 11 Quinnipiac University poll shows Obama’s job approval rating at 45 percent in Virginia, up slightly from 40 percent in September. Still, 52 percent disapprove. Obama took 52.6 percent of the vote there in the last election, the first time a Democrat had won the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Obama’s advisers say the president’s approval ratings will likely remain low until the Republicans settle on their presidential nominee. In the meantime, they say, Obama is presenting voters with a choice -- contrasting his jobs proposal, which the White House says will immediately boost employment and improve the economy, with what they describe as Republican efforts to block progress while also trying to roll back the president’s signature legislative accomplishments, including health-care overhaul and financial-market regulation.

Hitting Republicans

Obama has sought to tap populist anger and direct it at congressional Republicans.

The Republican plan would “gut regulations” and “let Wall Street do whatever it wants,” Obama said at Asheville Regional Airport, where he started the three-day bus tour.

In a separate interview with ABC News, Obama said the public’s frustration is evident in the Occupy Wall Street protests that have sprung in cities across the country as well as in the Tea Party movement.

“Both on the left and the right, I think people feel separated from their government,” Obama said in the interview, excerpts of which were released by the network. “They feel that their institutions aren’t looking out for them.”

He said his proposals to raise taxes for the wealthiest Americans and close loopholes for some corporations, including oil and gas companies, will restore the sense that “we’re also asking a fair share from everybody” for the country.

“If we can go back to that, then I think a lot of that anger, that frustration dissipates,” he told ABC.

Outside Washington

This trip marks the second time Obama has traveled to North Carolina and Virginia since announcing his jobs plan on Sept. 8. He has also stopped in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

“He is taking a fight that has largely been an inside-Washington fight and moving it out to the country,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. “What he is doing, the bus tours and such, is what he has to do to begin to engage people.”

Obama said his strategy now is breaking up the $447 billion measure he proposed in September into “some bite-sized pieces.”

Action in Senate

That will start in the Senate, where Democrats have the majority. Party leaders in the chamber are seeking a vote on a provision that would provide $35 billion in aid to states for teachers and emergency workers. That has been the primary focus of Obama’s remarks on the bus trip.

In his remarks yesterday, Obama said his jobs initiative would be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, repeating several times that the top 1 or 2 percent of Americans, including himself, should pay their “fair share.”

“The question is, if its paid for, won’t add to the deficit, won’t result in increasing your taxes, will instead result in lowering your taxes, will put people back to work at a time when the unemployment rate is too high, why wouldn’t we do it?” Obama said in Emporia. “It turns out that folks in Washington aren’t listening to you.”

The legislation is unlikely to pass. Republicans, who have a majority in the House and enough votes in the Senate to block consideration of legislation, have rejected raising taxes. They also object to additional spending when the nation is struggling with a budget deficit that was $1.3 trillion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. It was the third consecutive year that the shortfall has exceeded $1 trillion.

Blame Republicans

The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Obama is trying to blame Republicans because his previous initiatives have failed to lift the economy.

“I know he’s desperately interested in trying to blame anybody else, but he’s the president of the United States; he set the agenda; he got everything he wanted, and it didn’t work,” McConnell told reporters in Washington yesterday.

When the president took an August bus tour through parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, he held town-hall style meetings and answered questions from the audience. This trip is more scripted. Other than a forum with teachers yesterday, he has kept to the same speech outline.

While the crowds have largely been supportive, that isn’t necessarily an indicator for the president’s political prospects.

North Carolinians “are just gracious and kind,” Obama said before heading into Virginia.

“Even the folks who don’t vote for me are nice to me,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julianna Goldman in Emporia, Virginia, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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