Asheville, N.C — After falling in love with this Blue Ridge Mountain city on the campaign trail, the White House said, President Barack Obama was eager to return for a weekend getaway.
But the erosion of Obama's support in North Carolina — a critical swing state that he captured by the slimmest of margins in 2008 — may have made this weekend's holiday here an even easier call.
Obama is visiting a state that he won by 3/10 of a percentage point, the first Democrat to take North Carolina in a presidential election since 1976.
But now the state is anxious about rising deficits and the federal government's activist posture, political analysts said. North Carolina's unemployment reached 11.2% in February, one point higher than in the recession of the early 1980s. The sour economy has turned voters against incumbent politicians, Obama included.
His overall approval rating in North Carolina is just 46%, with 50% disapproving of his performance as president. The numbers are worse among independents, with nearly two-thirds unhappy about the job he has done, according to a survey conducted this month by Public Policy Polling.
"People are in a bad mood," said Gary Pearce, a North Carolina Democratic political consultant. "People like Obama personally. They want him to succeed. They're just not happy with where the country is right now."
This trip is Obama's second visit to North Carolina this month and fourth as president. He and his wife, Michelle, are staying at the same luxury resort in Asheville where, as a candidate in 2008, he prepared for a debate with his Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
"Any time a president comes to your home state you feel a special pride," said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist. "Especially if it's for a vacation, which is a statement that, `I like your state and enjoy spending time here,' " DuHaime said
The White House says the trip is pure rest and recreation. Joining the president and first lady are longtime Chicago friends Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt. The Obama girls stayed home. The first couple are staying at the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, a getaway complete with golf course and savory views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ten presidents have stayed at the resort, beginning with William Howard Taft.
Soon after arriving Friday, the Obamas went on an hourlong hike. They met an elderly woman along the trail who asked, "Are you who I think you are?" Neither looked tired after the hike.
Obama is expected to play a round of golf if the weather holds up. Don't expect him to interview prospective Supreme Court nominees, the White House said. On Sunday, Obama leaves for West Virginia, where he'll take part in a memorial service for the 29 men who died in the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy.
"The president first visited the Asheville area during the campaign in 2008, and he liked it so much that he vowed to take his family there," said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman. "The president and first lady are planning to spend a quiet weekend enjoying some of the many things this beautiful part of the country has to offer."
But the beautiful scenery will not hide the political landscape.
As further evidence that excitement about the Obama agenda has waned, a trio of Democratic House members from North Carolina — Larry Kissell, Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler — broke with the president and voted against the healthcare plan that was his top domestic priority.
"The energy level this year has definitely moved from the Democratic to the Republican side," said Michael Bitzer, an associate political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina. "The Republicans are fired up across the state. In Kissell's district there are a number of Republicans running and all could potentially give him a run for his money in November."
Even if Obama's stay fails to impress voters, White House aides say it's coming at the right time for him. Obama has made a habit of leapfrogging continents without an overnight stay. Last month he flew 13 hours to Afghanistan, spent six hours in the war zone, then flew home. The president has been treated for jet lag.
Said one White House aide: "If you told me [before taking office] we'd be taking day trips to Europe, I wouldn't have believed you.