Salena Zito

STAUNTON, Va. – Whether it is called General Lee Highway, as in Virginia, or Molly Pitcher Highway, as in Pennsylvania, the lives and economic strain along U.S. Route 11 tell of a country’s disappointment with Washington – specifically, with President Obama.

The north–south highway, created in 1926, extends more than 1,600 miles from New York to Louisiana. It is one of those blue lines you find on a gas-station road atlas, obscured by the bold red lines of the dominant interstates.

Woodrow Wilson’s home is along this road in Virginia, James Buchanan’s in Pennsylvania.

In between those presidential homes is a very critical battleground in next year’s election, along with a whole lot of resentment that began building early in 2009.

“I used to be a Democrat,” said a quiet older gentleman who declined to give his name, sitting with his wife outside Wilson’s home. “I come from a long line of Democrats. I have to say I couldn’t be more disappointed in this president’s job so far.”

Not so long ago, populist-Democrat rhetoric was popular here and farther up the road, in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Americans along such roads all across the country are struggling economically. They are consumed with uncertainty. And they have tuned-out the president.

Obama had a rocky start with American voters outside major cities almost immediately, according to Chris Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University of Ohio.

“Think back again to 2009 – where did he begin to get in trouble?” Kelley asks. “By engaging in hyper-government activism to reform health care, save the environment, make government transparent, while rarely to never talking about jobs.”

This led many to view him as out-of-touch, disconnected, aloof.

Now, Democrats’ strongholds in states such as Pennsylvania and Virginia are quietly walking away from him.

Out here, the sting of dissatisfaction pulls people away from Obama. Yet it doesn’t exactly pull them to the far right; many have settled comfortably at center-right.

Washington’s blame-rhetoric could push Middle America further right, however.

Late last week, the president hit a new low in Gallup’s tracking poll, with 38 percent approval. He blamed “certain” members of Congress for that slide in popularity.

“I have to say, I am tired of the constant blame on everyone but himself,” said John Dattilio, strolling here on a summer evening with his wife and children as they balanced melting ice cream cones.

Obama took to pointing fingers when his poll numbers started to slip last fall.

So far, he has blamed the stagnant economy on ATMs, ditches, Slurpees, corporate-jet owners, the Tea Party, Republicans, Japan’s earthquake, the Arab Spring, the Arab Summer, George Bush, and “fat-cat” Wall Street something-or-others. The kitchen sink may be next.

His numbers are tumbling in the critical battleground states of Pennsylvania, Virginia Florida, North Carolina and New Hampshire – states he must win in 2012.

RealClearPolitics crunched the numbers based on the electoral-college vote: Total from states giving Obama 51 percent or higher approval, 166; from states at 49 percent or lower, 320.

A presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win.

Here is what White House strategists don't get: As Americans struggle with uncertainty, they believe Obama is not providing real solutions – and they also believe he is part of the partisan bickering, or is using his “bully pulpit” to instigate it.

Here is what strategists on both sides don't get about the 2012 election: It is not the same as the 2010 midterms.

That previous cycle was a collective outcry to lessen the power of one party and to halt the president’s policies. The next cycle is personal; it is about your home, your pocketbook, your family, and ensuring your future is less uncertain.

When an earthquake hit the Eastern Seaboard last week, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said of Obama, who was golfing at the time: “(He) didn't feel the earthquake today.”

Sort of a telling metaphor for this presidency.

One reason why the president vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, which only the upper class can afford, and not in back-roads America, is that up there you can maintain the everything’s-alright bubble and the crowds adore you.

Out on U.S. Route 11, not so much.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.