POWHATAN POINT, Ohio – Joyce McNears peers over her reading glasses and asks a question to which she expects no answer: "Why is the president still not talking about jobs?"
Along with her son and grandson, the 66-year-old McNears matriarch is counting stock and rearranging shelves in the family hardware store that has seen good times and bad times in this Ohio River town.
Lately, it’s been bad.
Joyce has lived in Belmont County and voted for Democrats all of her life. Yet President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, both Democrats, won’t get her vote next year.
Belmont went for Obama in 2008 but voted against his policies in 2010, when the Democrat-rich county went for Republican Rob Portman for U.S. Senate.
That’s a problem for Democrats going into 2012 because Ohio has supported the winning candidate in 27 of the last 29 presidential elections. It is perhaps the nation’s most critical swing state.
"Democrats had an awful time in Ohio in 2010 and arguably did as bad there last November as anywhere in the country," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
A lot of that awfulness involves the economy and jobs.
Ohio was hit particularly hard when the recession barreled through in 2007. By 2009, after stimulus dollars failed to improve the state’s unemployment rate (higher than the national average), and after bailouts and spending issues raised concern about the nation’s future debt, Ohio became the first state to hand Obama chilling disapproval ratings.
Going forward, economic predictions are cloudy at best.
"I am not a forecaster," said renowned economist Allan Meltzer, "but the standard forecast from many sides is for continued moderate growth."
The problem, he says, is that "growth has had little effect on the unemployment rate."
Not much employment is created when gas rises from $2 to $ 4 a gallon, Meltzer says. "The same is true of rising food costs."
He also blames the business community for its distrust of the administration’s tax policies, uncertainties over health-care costs, energy regulations and a housing glut.
A disconnect exists between here and Washington that has matured beyond the Tea Party movement’s anger into something yet unnamed, yet no less vivid.
McNears Hardware used to be in the center of town, right along the river. Years ago, supplies would be loaded aboard a ferry for customers across the river in West Virginia.
We moved years ago up to Route 7 when the center of town dried up," said McNears’ son, Joe. Ohio, Kondik says, "is in an economic rut and Ohioans are looking for some signs that the state is recovering. If things are lousy next year like they were in 2010, the Republicans may do well yet again at both the state and federal level."
Which is why he thinks the president may be forced to shift from relying on Ohio as a must-win state to relying on a mix of southern states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida and western states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
"Combine that with the solidly Democratic Northeast and West Coast, and that could get him to the magic 270 electoral votes, even if he lost Ohio," he projects.
Which may explain why the president was not speaking about jobs last week but was tackling immigration at his first-ever visit to the border: pure political calculation.
Along the Ohio River, the road curves at the water’s whim. The southern county of Belmont – French for "beautiful mountain" – lives up to its name, with rolling hills to either side.
Towering smokestacks the size of city skyscrapers startle an unsuspecting traveler as they suddenly jut from acres of industrial parks – some working at full capacity, others long abandoned, all of them contrasting with the lush green hills.
Corey Frasnelly is one Democrat in Powhatan Point who still likes Obama. Working at his family’s NAPA auto-parts store, he reserves his affection for the president for the superficial.
"He speaks well," said Frasnelly, 21. But he admits Obama isn’t doing such a great job with the economy.
Heading east into town from Marietta, an American Recovery Act "stimulus" sign stands along Route 7. Says a man exiting a nearby power plant: "I can’t ever remember a road project being here."