Will Obama's heartland visits convince Americans he cares?

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 4, 2009 

SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. — Bill Clinton famously said he felt the pain of his fellow Americans.

George H.W. Bush said it simply, if awkwardly: "Message: I care."

President Barack Obama launched his version Friday, traveling to small-town Pennsylvania to tell Americans that he empathizes with their pain from the deep recession, that he's working hard all the time to create jobs and that his plans will work.

It was the first of occasional presidential tours to towns and cities that have been hit hard by the recession, a campaign-like effort to connect to Americans at a time when they may not think he's paying enough attention to their top priority: jobs.

The president's poll numbers have dropped and the prospects are daunting for Democrats who must face the voters next year, such as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a recent convert to the party and its crucial 60th vote in the Senate.

Obama came with some good news: Friday's report that the November jobless rate was 10 percent, inching downward from 10.2 percent the previous month, the best report since 2007. "This is good news," he said. "But I want to keep this in perspective. We still have a long way to go."

He made a Clintonesque personal pitch. "I will always be there, right there with you in the thick of the fight," he said.

Working to assure listeners that he's not aloof to the problems of working people, he said that he and first lady Michelle Obama had family members who were out of work. He said it was only a few years ago that he and his wife struggled to pay off their college loans — though he's now wealthy, thanks largely to the sales of his two books.

"We're not that far removed from struggling to pay the bills," he said. "Five, six years ago, we were still paying off student loans. Still trying to figure out if we pay this bill this month, what do we have to give up next month. We're not that far away from there."

He also tried to quash the constant criticism that he's focused on too many things beside jobs, such as foreign affairs, climate change and health care.

"Folks' attention spans are short," he said. "We've been working on jobs the whole time."

Obama said he'd unveil proposals to spark job growth in a speech Tuesday at The Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington research center. The package probably will include tax breaks for energy improvements in homes, according to a White House official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the proposal is still being drafted.

Other proposals that are being considered include a tax break for small businesses that hire new workers, new spending for road projects and cash to state and local governments to stop layoffs.

Obama is likely to tap the Troubled Asset Relief Program to help pay for new job-creating initiatives, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. The bank-relief program has about $139 billion left, and banks have returned about $71 billion in aid and paid in another $10 billion in interest. This week, Bank of America announced that it would repay $45 billion.

For many in the friendly audience, the visit was enough to keep them on Team Obama.

"Give the guy a chance," said Marilyn Bagienski, a jobs counselor from nearby Barnesville.

"The people who were for him are still for him, and the people who were against him are still against him," added Linda Reinbold, a health care worker from Bethlehem.

Perhaps. Polls show, however, that he's lost ground in this politically pivotal state and that many people are in the kind of sour mood that often leads to a backlash against incumbents.

Obama's approval rating — averaging 49 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.com — is the lowest of his presidency so far.

More pressing, Specter has his lowest approval rating since Franklin & Marshall College in nearby Lancaster started polling Pennsylvanians in 1991. Fewer than one in four people think that Specter deserves to be re-elected.

Analysts said that Obama would need to do more — in helping to create jobs and in convincing people that he cares — to turn things around for his party and himself.

"He doesn't come across as particularly compassionate," said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall. "He has that diffident, cool exterior. I don't think he's connecting to voters. He has to show some kind of genuine compassion, and that his plan is working."

"I don't think he's done it as well as he has to," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

"People have some doubt about what his efforts have accomplished. They're not writing him off, but their patience is being tested. The patience will run out in some ways next year if there are not some tangible results."

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The Franklin & Marshall College poll

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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