Lisa Hensley was excited to meet President Barack Obama when he unexpectedly showed up yesterday at the Countryside Barbeque in Marion, North Carolina, a town of about 8,000 along the Blue Ridge Mountains. The accountant even echoed the president’s message: “We need to be for America, not just for Democrats or Republicans,” she said.
Yet, Hensley, 50, a registered Democrat, said she won’t be voting for Obama next year.
“Not unless something changes dramatically,” she said. “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 this week’s three-day bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia to sharpen his attacks against Republicans, who have blocked his latest plan to used a combination of tax cuts and government spending to reignite growth and hiring.
“Even though they said ‘no’ the first time, we’re going to give them another chance,” Obama said to applause last night at West Wilkes High School in Millers Creek, North Carolina. “I think maybe the first time, because we had it all in one bill, maybe they didn’t study it all properly. Maybe they didn’t know what they were voting against.”
After stops yesterday and today in North Carolina, Obama moves to Virginia this afternoon. He won the two Republican- leaning states in 2008 and is trying to hold both next year.
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, was hit less hard by the recession. Still, the jobless rate there rose from a low of 2.8 percent in March 2007 to 7.2 percent in December 2009. It was 6.3 percent in August.
An Oct. 6 Public Policy Polling survey shows just 44 percent of North Carolinians approving of Obama’s job performance, with 53 percent disapproving. The president narrowly won North Carolina in 2008 -- by 0.3 percent of the vote -- making him the first Democratic presidential nominee to capture the state since Jimmy Carter did so 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.
The two states combined have 28 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
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.
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.
This trip marks the second time he 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.
“The problem is that 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 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. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, proposes to pay for it with a surtax on individuals with annual incomes of $1 million or more.
“We’ll ask Congress whether we should stand back and let people like me take advantage of corporate loopholes and pay less in taxes,” Obama said in Millers Creek, North Carolina. “Or should we ask folks like me to pay my fair share so that we give tax cuts to middle-class families and small businesses?”
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.
The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, accused the president of trying divide the public and use “displeasure with Washington for political gain.”
“He wants people to think that the problem isn’t his policies,” he said in a statement on the Senate floor. “It’s those mean Republicans in Congress who oppose them.”
While the president took an August bus tour through parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois that featured town-hall style meetings answering questions from the audience, this week’s bus tour is more scripted. Other than a forum with teachers today in Greensboro, the president has largely repeated the same speech.
“The most important thing I wanted to do was to hear from people like you,” Obama said this morning at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, North Carolina. “Because it doesn’t seem like your voices are being heard in Washington right now.”
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