- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The White House is billing President Obama’s trip Wednesday to Scranton, Pa., as an opportunity to talk about tax cuts, but the location just happens to be crucial to his re-election chances next year.

“It’s a must-win state for him,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa. “There’s no way he wins without it.”

Pennsylvania was a key battleground victory for Mr. Obama in 2008. The mostly white, Catholic, blue-collar voters in the northeastern part of the state provided the strongest Democratic margin outside Philadelphia.

But the president’s popularity in Pennsylvania has plummeted along with the weak economy. His job-approval rating was at 44 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released Nov. 10, and 80 percent of Pennsylvanians said they are dissatisfied with the country’s course.

“This is going to be a test visit for the Obama team,” said David Sosar, associate professor of political science at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. “I don’t see that same enthusiasm. He needs to come here to check the waters. This area has taken on a lot of hits lately.”

Mr. Obama is expected to use the trip to push Congress to pass a bill extending last year’s payroll-tax cut, which is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

Democrats‘ bill to extend the payroll-tax cut in the Senate is sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania’s senior senator. Mr. Casey, who is up for re-election next year, might not join Mr. Obama at the event, even though he was born and raised in Scranton.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was 8.1 percent in October, lower than the national average, but a half-percent higher than it was in June. Northeastern Pennsylvania’s economy has lagged behind the rest of the state. In Lackawanna County, which includes Scranton, the jobless rate in September was 8.5 percent. In neighboring Luzerne County, it was 9.2 percent. Carbon County’s unemployment rate was 10.1 percent.

The Republican National Committee said Mr. Obama’s trip, which will be funded by taxpayers, is “another swing-state visit to sell his failed policies to Pennsylvanians familiar with his broken promises.” The RNC said in a statement that the president has failed to deliver on promises of lower energy prices, “millions” of clean-energy jobs and a stabilized housing market.

Mr. Borick calls Scranton “the consummate pragmatic political environment.”

“Ideology doesn’t play a big role in Scranton,” Mr. Borick said. “They expect to see politicians deliver results. Up to this point, they haven’t seen the results that they’ve hoped for, and it’s dragging the president down.”

In spite of Mr. Obama’s double-digit win in Pennsylvania in 2008, the state has never been a lock for him. He lost the state’s Democratic primary that year to Hillary Rodham Clinton, then angered some Pennsylvanians by referring to them as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” to express their frustrations.

This time, Democrats reportedly are crafting a strategy to give Vice President Joseph R. Biden the lead in campaigning in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, thinking that he might connect better than Mr. Obama with white working-class voters in those states.

Mr. Biden, who is on a trip to Iraq and Turkey this week, is a native of Scranton and a Catholic. But Mr. Sosar said the vice president’s appeal in northeastern Pennsylvania might be overstated. He pointed to criticism of Mr. Biden’s brief visit to the Scranton area in September after a flood.

“That was a photo-op, unfortunately, and a lot of people took it as such,” Mr. Sosar said. “He was in and out in about two hours or so. I think it ended up hurting them. He didn’t spend enough time with the people.”

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