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Off Road Politics connects Washington with Main Street hosted by Salena Zito and Lara Brown PhD. Exclusive radio show on @TribLIVE

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Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011


Whether it is called General Lee Highway, as in Virginia, or Molly Pitcher Highway, as in Pennsylvania, the lives and economic strain along U.S. Route 11 tell of disappointment with Washington -- specifically, with President Obama.

The north-south highway, created in 1926, extends more than 1,600 miles from New York to Louisiana. It is one of those blue lines in a road atlas, obscured by dominant interstates' bold red lines.

Woodrow Wilson's home is along this road in Virginia, James Buchanan's in Pennsylvania.

In between is a critical battleground in next year's election, along with a whole lot of resentment that began early in 2009.

"I used to be a Democrat," said a quiet older gentleman who declined to give his name, sitting with his wife outside Wilson's home. "I come from a long line of Democrats. I have to say I couldn't be more disappointed in this president's job so far."

Not so long ago, populist-Democrat rhetoric was popular here and farther up the road, in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Americans along such roads across the country are struggling economically, consumed with uncertainty -- and have tuned out Obama.

He had a rocky start with voters outside major cities almost immediately, according to Chris Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University of Ohio.

"Think back again to 2009 -- where did he begin to get in trouble?" he asked. "By engaging in hyper-government activism to reform health care, save the environment, make government transparent, while rarely to never talking about jobs."

This led many to view him as out of touch, disconnected, aloof.

Now, Democrats' strongholds in states such as Pennsylvania and Virginia are quietly walking away from him.

Here, dissatisfaction pulls people away from Obama, yet not exactly to the far right; many have settled comfortably at center-right.

Washington's blame rhetoric could push Middle America further right, however.

Late last week, Obama's approval hit a new low in Gallup's tracking poll, 38 percent. He blamed "certain" members of Congress.

"I have to say, I am tired of the constant blame on everyone but himself," said John Dattilio, strolling here with his wife and children, balancing melting ice cream cones.

Obama took to pointing fingers when his numbers started to slip last fall.

So far, he has blamed the stagnant economy on ATMs, ditches, Slurpees, corporate-jet owners, the tea party, Republicans, Japan's earthquake, the Arab Spring, the Arab Summer, George Bush and "fat cat" Wall Street something-or-others. The kitchen sink may be next.

His numbers are tumbling in critical battlegrounds Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and New Hampshire -- states he must win in 2012.

RealClearPolitics crunched the numbers based on Electoral College votes: total from states giving Obama 51 percent or higher approval, 166; from states at 49 percent or lower, 320.

A presidential candidate needs 270 to win.

What White House strategists don't get: As Americans struggle with uncertainty, they believe Obama is not providing real solutions -- and that he is part of the partisan bickering, or using his "bully pulpit" to instigate it.

What both sides' strategists don't get about the 2012 election: It is not the same as the 2010 midterms.

That cycle was a collective outcry to lessen one party's power and halt Obama's policies. The next is personal, about home, pocketbook and family, and ensuring a less uncertain future.

When the Eastern Seaboard shook last week, spokesman Josh Earnest said of Obama, who was golfing at the time: "(He) didn't feel the earthquake today."

Sort of a telling metaphor for this presidency.

One reason why Obama vacations on tony, upper-class Martha's Vineyard and not in back-roads America is that there, he can maintain the "everything's all right" bubble and the crowds adore him.

Out on U.S. Route 11, not so much.

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