- 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.”

Democrats hold a voter-registration edge by a ratio of 6-to-1 in Scranton, but Republicans have been making gains in the region. In the midterm elections, Lou Barletta and Thomas Marino defeated incumbent Democrats. Mr. Barletta unseated 13-term veteran Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski.

The Senate is expected to vote at the end of this week on Mr. Obama’s call to extend and expand the payroll-tax cut, but it is expected to go down to defeat with Republicans saying they will vote to block it.

The GOP ardently opposes the Democrats‘ proposal to pay for the lost revenue by imposing a surtax on millionaires. After rejecting the Democrats‘ bill, Republicans hope to bring up a payroll-tax expansion bill of their own — one that includes an offset so attractive that most Republicans would be hard-pressed to oppose it.

In a closed-door meeting Tuesday, Senate Republicans discussed different ways to pay for a payroll-tax extension. After the meeting, Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, said one proposal would produce the savings by eliminating cost-of-living increases for senior government officials, including members of Congress, and shrink the size of the federal government through attrition.

“It needs to be paid for,” Mr. Wicker said. “I expect and believe that we’ll find a viable way to pay for it. You do not raise taxes on anybody during a recession like this when unemployment is at 9 percent.”

The payroll tax funds Social Security, and even though the money lost as a result of last year’s cut was replaced with general revenue funds, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said he was wary of tapping that source.

“I’m studying it,” said Mr. Sessions, one of a handful of Republicans who voted against enacting the tax cut last year. “I don’t think this is fairly called a tax cut. I think it is a pension-fund payment holiday.”

Mr. Sessions said he doesn’t think the action taken last year stimulated the economy the way the administration had promised.

But the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers told reporters Tuesday that the 2 percent cut helped stabilize the economy as it was being hit by higher gasoline prices, the fallout from Japan’s earthquake and the economic turmoil in Europe. He said extending the cut into next year would help gird against future financial fallout across the Atlantic.

• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

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