Obama Is Facing A Replay Of ’08 Hurdles In ‘Hillary Country,’ Pa.

Katharine Seelye
New York Times

It was trivia night at Kildare’s bar here, and among the teams competing was a group of history teachers from Scranton High School. They easily won the round that tested their knowledge of American presidents, including that the last one with facial hair was William Howard Taft.

President Obama will speak on Wednesday in Scranton, Pa., a bellwether area of the state where polls show he is in trouble. It will be his first trip to the city since he took office.

But they were slightly stumped when a reporter asked them about their own preferences for president next year.

Brian Harrity, 33, who teaches world and early American history, said he had supported Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state’s Democratic primary in 2008 over Barack Obama, and then Mr. Obama in November over the Republican, Senator John McCain.

But during the last three years, Mr. Harrity said, Mr. Obama has not taken full advantage of the powers of the presidency to “get things done,” which means, in Mr. Harrity’s view, that he has not put the economy back on track or created more jobs.

“I’m heavily Democratic,” Mr. Harrity said. “But if the right Republican came along, I would be open to voting for him.”

This is a common refrain here in what is still called “Hillary Country,” where Mrs. Clinton’s family roots run deep and 75 percent of Democratic primary voters backed her failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

It is also a sign of why recent polls show Mr. Obama in trouble here in northeast Pennsylvania and across the state. He is visiting here Wednesday, his first trip to Scranton since he became president.

The northeast is a swing, bellwether region in a state that suddenly seems in play. White, working-class voters, here and elsewhere, have been especially hard hit by the economic downturn. They have little loyalty to Mr. Obama and feel he has not lived up to his promise.

Polls show that fewer than half the voters in Pennsylvania view Mr. Obama favorably and that he is losing support among independents and union households. It is too early for such polls to have much meaning, particularly before there is even a Republican nominee. But Mr. Obama’s challenge in Pennsylvania, which has voted Democratic for president in the last five elections, is indicative of what he faces in states across the Rust Belt and could help determine the outcome of the presidential campaign.

His flagging poll numbers suggest how much has changed from 2008. Mr. Obama won the state over Mr. McCain by 10 percentage points; here in Lackawanna County, where Scranton is the county seat, he beat Mr. McCain by 26 percentage points.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate for October was 8.1 percent, lower than the national average of 9 percent. But here, in this old coal mining region, the rate was 9.7 percent; the Scranton area has the highest unemployment in the state. The city is on the verge of losing 300 postal service jobs. The regional food bank served a record number of meals on Thanksgiving and has had a 25 percent increase in demand over the last year.

Local budgets are so squeezed that Mayor Christopher A. Doherty of Scranton, a Democrat and early Clinton supporter, has proposed raising property taxes by 29 percent. The county is proposing a tax increase of 38 percent.

“People are afraid,” Mr. Doherty said. “I remember when Ronald Reagan was president, unemployment was high and interest rates were through the roof. But we always thought things were going to get better. Today, we don’t think things will get better.”

He said that under President George W. Bush, the federal government had cut the community block grants to Scranton by 6 percent and he had hoped to receive more financing under a Democrat. But, he said, under Mr. Obama, Scranton has lost 16 percent of that money.

“Four years ago it was about hope,” the mayor said. “Now it’s about his record.”

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is the Republican candidate who fares best in the state in early polls, statistically tying Mr. Obama, in part because he is perceived as more moderate than the rest of the Republican field.

“For many people here, Obama is too liberal,” said Ed Mitchell, a Democratic strategist based in nearby Wilkes-Barre.

Mr. Obama may have got off on the wrong foot with them when he suggested in 2008 that voters in small towns were bitter about the world passing them by and would “cling to guns or religion.” He lost this state’s white, working-class voters, those without a college degree, first to Mrs. Clinton in the primary and then to Mr. McCain.

In a speech Wednesday at the high school — where Mrs. Clinton opened her primary campaign — Mr. Obama intends to exhort Congress to extend and expand his cut in the payroll tax, a move he says would save middle-class families an additional $1,000 next year.

Some are hoping Mr. Obama will do more to assert himself over Congress.

“Enough with the soft approach,” said Corey O’Brien, a Democratic Lackawanna County commissioner and early backer of Mr. Obama. “He’s got to say, ‘I’m in charge, and I’m going to get it done with or without Congress.’ ”

“People are furious,” Mr. O’Brien added. “Everybody here is petrified they are going to lose their jobs tomorrow, and I mean everybody.”

Although Pennsylvania has one million more registered Democrats than Republicans, the Republicans swept the state in the 2010 elections. They now hold the governor’s office, both houses of the legislature and two-thirds of the Congressional seats, and they control 54 of the 67 counties. This gives them an infrastructure they lacked in 2008.

“I’m feeling pretty good about where we sit,” Robert Gleason, chairman of the state Republican Party, said in an interview.

The Obama campaign has been on the ground in the state since April and is trying to rebuild and re-energize its base. It has organized events with students and women, and volunteers have made more than 250,000 calls from phone banks and collected more than 35,000 “I’m in” cards from Pennsylvanians pledging support, campaign officials said.

The Obama team is also planning to deploy Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has roots in Scranton. Where Mr. Obama may be restrained, Mr. Biden relishes playing to the bleachers and is likely to assume the traditional vice-presidential role of attack dog.

Any feistiness at all will be welcome here by voters like Brian Evans, 74, a retired bus driver.

“Obama doesn’t have the moxie to tell Congress to go to hell,” said Mr. Evans, originally a Clinton supporter. As for 2012, Mr. Evans said he was looking at Republicans.

Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/30/us/politics/obama-faces-hurdles-in-hillary-country-in-pennsylvania.html