President Barack Obama is targeting vital North Carolina and Virginia this week, as he kicks off a three-day bus tour that is as much about campaigning for his jobs bill as it is shoring up support in two southern states he wrested from Republican control four years ago.
Obama's 2008 victories in North Carolina and Virginia were due in large part to the states' changing demographics and his campaign's ability to boost voter turnout among young people and African-Americans. But nearly three years after his historic election, the president's approval ratings in both states are sagging, in line with the national trend.
A Quinnipiac University poll out earlier this month put Obama's approval rating in Virginia at 45 percent, with 52 percent disapproving. The same poll showed 83 percent of Virginians were dissatisfied with the direction of the country. In North Carolina, Obama has a 42 percent approval rating, according to an Elon University poll conducted this month. Most national polls put Obama's approval rating in the mid- to low-forties.
The president's bus tour comes as the battle in Washington over his jobs plan enters a new phase. While Obama had demanded lawmakers pass the $447 billion measure in its entirety, Senate Republicans have blocked those efforts, leaving the president and his Democratic allies to fight for the bill's proposals piece by piece.
Since announcing his plan for putting Americans back to work last month, Obama has been traveling the country trying to build public support for his initiatives. The president's itinerary has focused heavily on swing states, underscoring the degree to which what happens with his job bill is linked to his re-election prospects.
Obama starts his bus tour with a speech in Ashville, N.C., Monday morning and he will speak again later that day at a high school in Millers Creek, N.C. Other stops on the three-day swing include Jamestown, N.C., and the southern Virginia cites of Emporia and Hampton.
While Obama won handily in Virginia in 2008, he barely squeaked out a victory in North Carolina, winning the state by less than a percentage point. John Davis, a longtime political analyst in North Carolina, said Obama won there in part because his campaign identified the state as a potential battleground early and established a dominant ground game, while the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, was focused elsewhere.
But with North Carolina now firmly on the political establishment's radar, Davis said thinks Obama will have a much harder time holding the state next November.
"This time I think Obama loses the advantage of a surprise like he pulled off in 2008," he said.
The president faces significant obstacles in Virginia as well. While Democrats had hoped Obama's victory signaled Virginia's shift to a blue state, momentum has since strongly turned back in favor of Republicans, most notably with Gov. Bob McDonald's win in 2009.
That shift has some Virginia Democrats, especially state legislators running in next month's General Assembly elections, less than thrilled about Obama heading to their state this week. In coal-mining southwestern Virginia, Democratic state Sen. Phil Puckett has flatly renounced the president. With Republicans running television ads and erecting billboards showing Puckett campaigning for Obama in 2008, Puckett said in a television interview he would not support Obama in 2012.
The White House insists the president is focused more on the economy than elections. With the nation's unemployment rate stuck at 9.1 percent, Obama's goal this week will be to convince the public that his jobs plan will put out-of-work teachers, police officers and firefighters back on the job, while also repairing crumbling roads and bridges.
By breaking up elements of the plan into individual bills, the White House wants to force Republicans to voice their opposition one by one — part of the Obama administration's strategy of hanging blame for any eventual failure of the president's economic policies on GOP obstructionism.
"Each time we're going to ask Republicans to support the bill," Obama said last week. "And if they don't want to support the bill, they've got to answer not just to us, but also the American people as to why they wouldn't."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said he doesn't expect the president to have a significantly revamped message on the road now that he's selling individual components of his bill, not the full package.
"You can expect to hear the president making the case for the need to take action until Congress takes action on every item," he said Friday.
The president will be ditching Air Force One for much of his trip this week, traveling instead on a $1.1 million bus purchased by the Secret Service. The impenetrable-looking bus is painted all black, with dark tinted windows and flashing red and blue lights. Obama first used the custom-made bus during a similar road trip in August, when he traveled through Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
Obama's time on the road will take him through small towns and rural swaths of both Virginia and North Carolina. In addition to his scheduled speeches, the president is sure to make unannounced visits to local restaurants or stop to greet supporters gathered along the road to watch his motorcade pass.
The effect is a campaign-style trip that allows the president to engage in a little retail politics, while also garnering the national media coverage typically afforded only to a sitting president.