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Obama's Pennsylvania problem

| Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011

Minutes stretched on awkwardly after U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis spoke to local Democrats. Yet that was less uncomfortable than one man's attempt to break the silence.

"Let's go Obama!" he shouted, clapping loudly.

No response.

It was a reaction you'd expect at a Republican rally — not from Pittsburgh unionists, elected Democrats and other party faithful gathered to support Barack Obama's jobs bill.

While the event's lackluster attendance might be attributed to poor planning (cardinal rule in politics: never book a room you can't fill), there is no excuse for Democrats' lack of applause for a Democrat president.

Obama has a Pennsylvania problem, particularly with working-class Democrats and women who supported Hillary Clinton in 2008.

He eventually won them over (along with young people and blacks), beating Republican John McCain by nearly 10 points.

Today, not so much — largely based on loss of trust.

Candidates know they can evoke strong negative feelings and still win back voters. But voters' trust is nearly impossible to recover.

"A lot of working-class and middle-class Democrats in Pennsylvania see candidates through the prism of their values," said one party strategist working to win back distrustful voters for Obama. This time, he admitted, the task "is more of a challenge."

Actually, Obama has trouble all around, according to Mark Rozell, public policy professor at George Mason University: "The liberal core is unhappy with his policies and won't turn out for him as solidly as in 2008, and ... independents and so-called Reagan Democrats are abandoning him in large numbers."

Signs of discontent are seen even among blacks.

State Sen. Tim Solobay found the lack of enthusiasm at last week's event "weird." He wondered if Democrats here see Obama as far less moderate than themselves, "plus there is this perception that no one can get along in Washington."

"Leadership begins at the top," said John Griffith, who lives across the state in Easton. A carpenter who served as a soldier in Bosnia, he voted for Obama in 2008; he now considers himself an independent.

"I'd vote for Colin Powell," he said, explaining how his heart has strayed.

A battle is raging for Democrats' souls, Rozell believes: "The moderate wing seems without direction, other than its argument that the party needs to do what is necessary to win election."

Obama's Electoral College calculus is complicated by not polling well among white Jacksonian Democrats, said Curt Nicholas, a Baylor University political science professor.

That may put "several electorally rich, traditionally Dem-leaning states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania into play, while convincing many that he has less chance ... of winning traditional battleground states like Ohio, Iowa and Florida," he said.

Obama polls slightly better -- but still not that well -- in Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia, due to an influx of Latino voters in the first two and to highly educated professional whites in the others.

That's why he'll begin a "jobs" bus tour in Virginia and North Carolina on Monday.

Nicholas said Obama's "class-based populist attacks ... are traditionally thought to appeal to the 'Jacksonian' white voters that he is polling the worst with, while repelling the professional white voters he is close to doing well with.

"That tack only works if the populist attacks are rhetorical" and don't harm "the gentry whites' economic interests."

Ted Manning owns The Pita Pit, three blocks from where Obama spoke in Pittsburgh. How ironic, he thought, that Obama talked about small-business jobs when his visit caused Manning to lose revenue.

"I'm probably off at least 50 percent today," he said amid streets blocked off for Obama's visit.

Manning doesn't blame Obama for the bad economy, "but he hasn't earned my vote, either. He hasn't shown me he can get the job done."

In his speech, Obama cited the 100-year-old Hulton Bridge as an example of work his jobs bill would create.

That project is already set for mid-2013, according to PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi: "Right now, (it) is in the engineering and design stage."

Struzzi can name a dozen projects that would create construction jobs "but not that one specifically."

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