Politics & Government

Pennsylvania loved Obama in '08, but ardor is gone

READING, Pa. — Elden Buck, a self-described independent, voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, persuaded by the then-candidate's pledge to remake Washington.

Nearly 16 months later, Buck, 52, is clinging to his job at an art supplies store in a small southeastern Pennsylvania town buffeted by the recession. He's worried about paying his bills. His optimism has turned as dull as the slate-colored sky over this once-proud industrial city.

"I don't know about Obama anymore," Buck said. "He talked about new leadership. Potentially, that was really good. Now, I don't know which way we're headed."

Buck's dissatisfaction echoes across Pennsylvania, where Obama's 60-plus percent job approval ratings in some polls a year ago have evaporated. After he carried the Keystone State by 10 percentage points in 2008, opinion polls now find that a clear majority of Pennsylvanians disapprove of his performance as president, a troubling election-year sign for Democrats in this notably independent-minded state.

The anger is obvious in places such as Reading, a depressed former railroad town about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to carry surrounding Berks County. Now, with the county's 9.1 percent unemployment rate outpacing the state average, many who bought into Obama's campaign mantra of "change" don't think that their lives will change for the better anytime soon.

A recent poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster pegged Obama's statewide job approval rating at 38 percent, down from 55 percent last February. Sixty-six percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed said they didn't think that their families would be better off financially a year from now.

"It's the pessimism factor," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at the college who directed the poll. "It's odd because we're in another change mood, but the change is very different than what we saw in 2008. This is based on anger and frustration, on hostility to government."

The sources of anger are many and varied.

Some, like Buck, are worried about the spiraling recession claiming their jobs. Others, such as Esther Hellman, 56, criticized the White House and congressional Democrats for politicizing health care restructuring, including a short-lived agreement to cover Medicaid payments in Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson's home state of Nebraska in exchange for Nelson's support for a Senate health care bill.

The president eliminated what some critics dubbed the "Cornhusker kickback" in the health care plan he unveiled this week, but the recriminations remain.

"The deals and the backhanded way they went about it is just appalling to me," said Hellman, an office manager at a health care firm, who voted for Obama. "It feels like we're sheep being led to the slaughter."

Then there's the complaint voiced by Obama voter Art Rohrbach, a retired writer, who still smarts at the image of the president bowing at the waist to greet the Saudi Arabian monarch, King Abdullah, at a summit in London 10 months ago.

"I would've liked to see him not bow down to these other leaders," said Rohrbach, 69. "A handshake or nod of the head is appropriate."

To be sure, not everyone remains as annoyed by that gesture as Rohrbach, who said he wasn't sure whether he'd vote for Obama again. The bitterness toward Washington, however, many residents said, is an extension of frustration with the way that local and state officials have handled the recession.

"I don't remember a time where people were as angry and distrustful of government," said Kevin Murphy, the head of the Berks County Community Foundation, a nonprofit agency. "The mood is generally unpleasant out there."

With the recession swallowing up state revenues, Pennsylvania faces a budget shortfall of nearly $500 million. In Reading, a city of about 80,000 people, police officers have been laid off to balance the municipal budget, so that about 175 officers serve a city in which 250 are needed, Murphy said.

Reading's tax base has dwindled as row after row of stately Victorian houses, built during the town's heyday as the origin of the railroad line that hauled coal to Philadelphia, have been abandoned or divided into apartments that house low-income Latino immigrants.

Two public libraries were set to close last year until civic leaders used federal stimulus money to keep them open.

"These are one-time tricks, and they're running out of options," Murphy said. "They're burning the furniture to heat the house."

The dissatisfaction with Washington could claim five-term Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican turned Democrat, who's facing a primary challenge and running neck-and-neck in opinion polls with the likely Republican candidate in November, former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey. In the Franklin & Marshall poll, only 29 percent of respondents said Specter deserved to be re-elected.

Some independent voters who oppose Obama invoked comparisons with staunchly Democratic Massachusetts, where a Republican neophyte, Scott Brown, scored a stunning victory in last month's Senate race to fill the seat of the late Edward Kennedy.

"If that trend continues across the country, we'd have a whole new Congress come 2010," said Lou Wasser, 70, a retired sales manager.

To experts, the rightward drift in Reading is merely another sign that the disparate groups who flocked to Obama in 2008 — including independents, suburbanites and young voters — are losing faith in the administration.

"The Obama coalition that many of us thought would be similar in terms of its ability to create a new dominant majority in the country — as (President Franklin D. Roosevelt) did between 1933 and '36 — has not materialized," Madonna said.

"In our state, if you can't win the suburbs, including Berks County, you don't win. The polling now is a bad sign for Democrats; there's no way to say it any other way."


The Franklin & Marshall College Poll


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