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.

A battle is raging for Democrats’ souls, Rozell believes: “The moderate wing seems without direction, other than its argument that the party needs to do what is necessary to win election.”

Obama's electoral-college calculus is complicated by his not polling well among white Jacksonian-Democrats, said Curt Nicholas, a Baylor University political science professor.

That may put “several electorally rich, traditionally Dem-leaning states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania into play, while convincing many that he has less chance … of winning traditional battleground states like Ohio, Iowa and Florida,” he said.

Obama polls slightly better – but still not that well – in Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia, due to an influx of Latino voters in the first two and to highly educated professional whites in the last three.

That’s why he’ll begin a “jobs” bus tour in Virginia and North Carolina on Monday.

Nicholas said Obama’s “class-based populist attacks … are traditionally thought to appeal to the ‘Jacksonian’ white voters that he is polling the worst with, while repelling the professional white voters he is close to doing well with.

“That tack only works if the populist attacks are rhetorical” and don’t harm “the gentry-white's economic interests.”

Ted Manning owns The Pita Pit, a restaurant three blocks from where Obama spoke in Pittsburgh. How ironic, he thought, that Obama talked about small-business jobs when his visit caused Manning to lose a healthy chunk of revenue.

“I’m probably off at least 50 percent today,” he said of the streets blocked off for Obama’s visit.

Manning doesn't blame Obama for the bad economy, “but he hasn’t earned my vote, either. He hasn’t shown me he can get the job done.”

In his speech, Obama cited the city’s 100-year-old Hulton Bridge as an example of work that would be created by his jobs bill.

That bridge project is already scheduled for mid-2013, according to PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi: “Right now, (it) is in the engineering and design stage.”

Struzzi can name a dozen projects that would create construction jobs “but not that one specifically.”


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.