Salena Zito

PITTSBURGH, PA- Minutes stretched on awkwardly after Labor Secretary Hilda Solis spoke to local Democrats. Yet that was less uncomfortable than one man’s attempt to break the silence.

“Let’s go Obama!” he shouted, clapping loudly.

No response.

It was a reaction you’d expect at a Republican rally – not from Pittsburgh unionists, elected Democrats and other party faithful gathered to support Barack Obama’s jobs bill.

While the event’s lackluster attendance might be attributed to poor planning (cardinal rule in politics: never book a room you can’t fill – and this room wasn’t full), there is no excuse for Democrats’ lack of applause for a president who is a Democrat.

Obama has a Pennsylvania problem, particularly with working-class Democrats and women who supported Hillary Clinton in 2008’s primary.

He eventually won them over (along with young people and blacks), beating Republican John McCain by nearly 10 points.

Today, not so much – and much of that is based on trust.

Candidates know they can evoke strong negative feelings and still win back voters. But lose the voters’ trust, and that is nearly impossible to recover.

“A lot of working-class and middle-class Democrats in Pennsylvania see candidates through the prism of their values,” said one party strategist who is working to win back distrustful voters for Obama. This time, he admits, the task “is more of a challenge.”

Actually, Obama has trouble all around, according to Mark Rozell, public policy professor at George Mason University: “The liberal core is unhappy with his policies and won't turn out for him as solidly as in 2008, and … independents and so-called Reagan Democrats are abandoning him in large numbers.”

Signs of discontent are seen even among African-Americans.

Pennsylvania state senator Tim Solobay, one of the party-faithful at last week’s event, found the lack of enthusiasm “weird.” He wondered if Democrats here see Obama as far less moderate than themselves, “plus there is this perception that no one can get along in Washington.”

“Leadership begins at the top,” says John Griffith, who lives across the state in Easton. A carpenter and former soldier who served in Bosnia, he voted for Obama in 2008; now he considers himself an independent.

“I’d vote for Colin Powell,” Griffith said, explaining how his heart has strayed.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.