During a drive between the Mon Valley towns of McKeesport and Elizabeth, a man named Ray was overheard calling into a local radio station to talk about the subject of the hour: November’s presidential election.
The first thing he said is that he is a Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Pressed by the talk-show host, he said he would not vote for Obama this time.
The rest of Ray’s answer was not unique or remarkable: Yes, he is a union member. Yes, he wanted Obama to succeed. And, yes, he is very disappointed after giving the president more than enough chances to prove he can lead.
Ray said he had finally given up.
It is a story heard over and over across the country, one that began not long after Obama took office in 2009 and followed a series of heavy-handed moves such as appointing policy "czars" to avoid Senate confirmation fights and a lack of transparency with the press and the public (a list too long to elaborate) despite vows to the contrary.
Stimulus signs that dotted highways after a trillion-dollar federal spending spree became signs to mock when the economy failed to improve — and guys like Ray began to detach.
Following the messy passage of Obama’s health-care bill in 2010, the disconnect between him and Americans escalated — evidenced by a massive sweep of Democrats from state legislatures, governors’ offices and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Obama will find no redemption with Pennsylvania Democrats such as Ray. Yet that does not necessarily mean that, come January, he will not be sworn in again.
The data from a yearlong measure of his approval rating, conducted by Gallup in Pennsylvania, aren’t promising: 45 percent approve of his performance, 48 percent disapprove.
While Obama campaigners salivate over the primary battle among Republicans Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, they fail to realize that the GOP’s family feud will heal more easily than did Democrats’ in 2008.
Independents and Jacksonian Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton grudgingly came over to Obama after their primaries but never felt he was their guy; they were bruised by his treatment of their hero, Bill Clinton, and Hillary.
Back then, Hillary’s fatal problem was simple: She couldn’t hit hard on Obama’s experience and qualifications, or question how he would fulfill his lofty promises — or even request something as routine as the release of his college records.
Why? Because the disciplined, brilliantly manipulative Obama team and an adoring press would have cried "Racism!"
Those wounds have not healed among Democrats who feel they did not receive in Obama what they would have received in Hillary.
Obama needs Pennsylvania to win re-election. Yet his Electoral College calculus is complicated by his failure to poll well among Jacksonian voters (mostly rural or blue-collar whites) and worsened by his mandate that religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals — whose objections he sought to mollify on Friday — provide contraception to employees.
Such government intervention does not sit well with many voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other critical, Catholic-rich Midwestern states. Catholic Democrats may lean left on social-justice issues — but don’t try to tell their priests, parishes or hospitals what to do about contraception and abortion.
Even the class-based populist attacks that Obama emphasizes in his political rhetoric, traditionally thought to appeal to Jacksonian white voters, are falling on deaf ears this time around. He is polling the worst with those very voters — and his rhetoric may repel the professional white voters with whom he has always done especially well.
As the election draws nearer, Pennsylvania no doubt will be the key to the political world. Its microcosm of voters — ranging from rich-gentry whites who shifted to Obama in 2008, to somewhat more downscale Jacksonian whites who shifted to Republicans in 2010 — will be at the center of attention.
For Obama to win here, his coalition will need to maximize the minority vote, keep single women and the youth vote firmly in his corner, eke out a win with gentry whites, split the independent vote and hold down the losses among Jacksonian whites.
That is going to be a problem for him, with the loss of the Rays in this state.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter