Obama visits New Hampshire, but is the state swinging against him?

President Obama talked about jobs and the economy Tuesday in this small but crucial state. His approval rating is 41 percent in New Hampshire – the lowest it's been since his first month in office.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the American Jobs Act at Manchester High School Central in Manchester, New Hampshire Tuesday.

President Obama carried an urgent message of middle-class economic empowerment to the Granite State on Tuesday, providing a taste of the 2012 pitch that he’ll make to voters in this small but crucial swing state – and across the nation.

He emphasized a commitment to tax relief for workers, and he chided his Republican adversaries for blocking the job-creation bill he presented to Congress earlier this year.

It was a populist song – one Democrats hope will boost Mr. Obama’s sagging approval ratings and prompt renewed faith in his leadership, despite a still-stagnant fiscal picture.

It was also a plea.

“It’s going to take time to rebuild an economy where hard work is valued and responsibility is rewarded,” Obama told students and supporters at Manchester Central High School. “It’s going to take time to rebuild an economy that restores security for the middle class and renews opportunity for folks trying to reach the middle class.”

But political experts say Obama – who bested Republican Sen. John McCain here in the 2008 general election – faces an uphill climb. That’s the conclusion even though New Hampshire’s economic picture isn’t as bleak as that of other states: Unemployment is at 5.3 percent.

Still, Obama’s approval rating is 41 percent in New Hampshire – the lowest it has been since his first month in office, according to a WMUR/University of New Hampshire (UNH) poll released last month.

“The biggest problem he has is that the economy nationally is driving his job-approval ratings in New Hampshire,” says Andy Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center in Durham. “When the economy is bad, the president gets the blame; his party gets the blame.”

Mr. Smith adds, “I hate to say it, [but] about all he can say is that the Republicans are going to be worse, and the strategy he’s taking is in line with that.”

WMUR/UNH numbers also show a public lacking optimism about America’s future: Seventy percent of New Hampshire residents polled believe the nation is on the wrong track.

Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at UNH, says he senses that independent voters are starting to ditch the incumbent.

“Swing voters swung against George W. Bush and John McCain. Now they’ve swung against Obama,” Mr. Scala says. “They’re discontented with the status quo, especially on the economy. The president needs some good economic news to convince those voters that things are turning around for the better.”

On Tuesday, Obama worked to channel empathy for those struggling and to affirm he has the concerns of Americans foremost on his mind. The “essence of the American dream,” he said, feels like it is “slipping away.”

So Obama urged Congress to extend the $1,000 tax cut for average families – and to increase it to $1,500.

Democratic activist Deborah Butler, a Concord resident in the audience Tuesday, said she felt the president’s compassion and hopes the state’s many independent voters are listening closely to his call.

“As a single mom with two kids in college, that extra $1,500 would really help. And to pay $1,000 more would hurt,” Ms. Butler says.

She also says Obama sounds pro-active, while the GOP presidential contenders routinely visiting New Hampshire in advance of the Jan. 10 primary are “mean-spirited.”

“The economy and unemployment are of course dampening the spirits of everyone, but much has been accomplished, and there is much more to do,” she says.

Tom Rath, a senior adviser to Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign and a veteran of the primary process, says the economy has become Obama’s albatross.

“His performance has not matched his rhetoric or promises,” Mr. Rath says. “The real estate market here is still in the tank, and there is decided unease about the economy.”

He adds, “I think these issues are not principally partisan. They cut across party lines and reach into the independent voter base as well.”

New Hampshire voters are unpredictable. Underscoring their “Live Free or Die” state motto, they often keep election-watchers guessing about their loyalties until ballots are cast. This cycle – in both the primary and general contests – will prove no exception, political experts say.

The state offers just four electoral votes to its victor in the presidential contest. But it is one of a dozen states typically in play in recent elections. It is symbolically important.

A Bloomberg poll indicates that Obama would not do well in a head-to-head matchup against one GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney. The president trails the former Massachusetts governor by 10 points, according to the poll, which was conducted earlier this month.

But Obama’s visit Tuesday signals he’s not willing to cede New Hampshire to whoever the eventual Republican nominee is. No matter how dismal his job-approval ratings look there now.

“New Hampshire is a swing state,” Smith says. “It will be in play for the 2012 election, and even though it’s only four electoral votes, if Al Gore would have gotten them, he would have been president in 2000.”

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