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Unemployment Roils 2010 Battlegrounds

Unemployment Roils 2010 Battlegrounds

By Mike Memoli - July 18, 2009

As the president and vice president were out campaigning for fellow Democrats Thursday, they were also selling themselves.

President Obama, at a rally in New Jersey for Gov. Jon Corzine, spent most of his time before a crowd of 17,000 selling his administration's health care reform effort, asking as for patience for his economic plans. In Virginia, Vice President Biden attracted more attention for a broadside he launched against the House Republican Whip, Eric Cantor, than he did for that state's gubernatorial nominee, Creigh Deeds.

In Depth: Top 10 Cities with the Least Bad Unemployment Rates

"I ask those critics," Biden said, not mentioning Cantor by name, "Would they not give a tax cut to the 95 percent of the hardest-working people in America? ... Would they sit back and let the economy collapse?"

The nation's top Democrats return to the campaign trail as Obama's popularity is trickling down, both nationally and in many states where Democratic governors may face tough races in 2010. Those races are unfolding as unemployment rates continue to rise - approaching 10 percent nationally, and having already eclipsed the double digit threshold in 15 states.

If Thursday was any guide, the president recognizes that confidence in the nation's economy will play a significant role in whether Democratic incumbents are returned to power.

"I realize that there are a lot of folks who are worrying about losing their home, worried about paying the bills, putting food on the table," he said at the Corzine rally. But the current downturn, he argued, was the inevitable result of government for too long pursuing failed economic policies, saying he "inherited an economy where Washington didn't pay for anything, made a lot of promises," and where Main Street ended up picking up the tab.

Obama's win last November was driven primarily by voters' concerns about the economy. Yet the average unemployment rate of states he carried was more than 1.3 points higher than the states McCain won. Ten of the 15 states where unemployment now tops 10 percent were in the Obama column on election day, including the battlegrounds of Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana and Florida. The president has visited each state since his inauguration at least once - including Michigan just this week, where new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Friday showed the unemployment rate has jumped 1.1 points to 15.2 percent, the highest in the nation.

With a recovery slow to take hold and Republicans becoming increasingly critical of the stimulus effort, Obama's approval rating has dropped below 50 percent in several of these key states where there is recent polling. In Ohio, Obama's approval rating dipped to 49 percent according to a Quinnipiac poll earlier this month. A Public Policy Polling survey in North Carolina this week found his approval dropped 49 percent there as well. And a mid-June poll in Nevada also put Obama's approval rating at 49 percent.

Conversely, in New Hampshire, where unemployment is the 11th lowest in the nation, Obama's numbers have remained strong. A University of New Hampshire survey putting his approval rating at 61 percent, with only 33 percent disapproving. Ann McLane Kuster, a Democrat who launched her campaign for Congress in New Hampshire's second district last month, said she's been surprised to find as she meets with voters that the economy does not seem to be a primary concern.

"It's there in everybody's minds, but health care is the issue people are really focused on," she said.

The White House hopes its stepped-up defense of the stimulus - along with support from the DNC - will pay dividends for the president in the short-term nationally.

"We were at the brink of catastrophe at the beginning of the year but we have walked some substantial distance back from the abyss," National Economic Council director Larry Summers was to say in a speech Friday. "Substantial progress has been made in rescuing the economy from the risk of economic collapse that looked all too real 6 months ago."

But in the states there is still real concern. Ohio Gov. Governor Ted Strickland has the misfortune of being the only Democratic incumbent seeking re-election next year in a state double-digit unemployment. Once popular, the same Quinnipiac poll that showed Obama's approval dipping below 50 percent in Ohio also shows Strickland in a dogfight with his likely Republican opponent, former Congressman John Kasich.

Democratic strategists also doubt that the party can hold on to the governorship in Michigan, where several formidable Republicans are vying to replace retiring Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Without significant economic improvement by this point next year, incumbents may become increasingly vulnerable, particularly in states like Massachusetts, Iowa and Colorado. And Democratic candidates on otherwise favorable turf like Nevada, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania may have trouble getting off the ground.

Corzine doesn't have the luxury of time, so the best he can hope for is that a president who's still popular in his state can make the difference.

"For the past four years, often, Washington [was] working against us. Now, with a partner in the White House, there is no limit to what we can accomplish," he said, repeating that final sentence a handful more times.

In Depth: Top 10 Cities with the Least Bad Unemployment Rates

In Depth: America's Top 10 Most Ambitious Cities

In Depth: 9 Ways Cities Are Coping with the Recession

In Depth: Top 10 Freest and Least Free States

Mike Memoli covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at mmemoli@realclearpolitics.com

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