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Swing county in Michigan isn't sold on batting for Obama

Obama swept Macomb County — long a measure of the national mood — by more than 8 points in 2008. But voters here aren't happy with the president's economic policies, as their state has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation.

November 12, 2011|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama speaks at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., in July 2009.
President Obama speaks at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., in… (Paul Sancya, ASSOCIATED…)

Reporting from Sterling Heights, Mich. — Macomb County's mercurial "Reagan Democrats" have long served as a barometer of the national mood. Their abandonment of their own party to support Ronald Reagan helped usher in GOP rule nationally. Three decades later, Barack Obama pulled them back into the fold, sweeping the county by more than 8 points and winning Michigan by the largest margin for a Democrat since 1964.

The size of that win — particularly in a white, blue-collar swing county like Macomb — might have been enough to convince Republicans that Michigan wasn't worth the effort in 2012. But as Obama seeks a second term, the Democratic loyalty demonstrated three years ago appears tenuous.

Unemployment, which peaked at 14.1% in summer 2009, is still the third-highest in the nation at 11.1%. After declining for 19 months straight, it climbed a full point between April and August.

Though Obama helped rescue two Michigan-based auto companies — a move his advisors credited with saving 1 million jobs — his economic policies draw little praise from independent and Democratic-leaning voters in Macomb County.

Among two dozen interviewed recently, some said they felt sorry for the president because congressional Republicans have thwarted him at every turn. Some were disappointed that he had not been able to accomplish more in the area of job creation when he had a Democratic majority in Congress. And some, like Donald and Arlene Wittmer of Sterling Heights, have simply concluded that he is out of his depth.

"His first stimulus was ridiculous; he spent [$787 billion] and got nothing out of it," Donald Wittmer said. "Now he wants to do it again and still doesn't really have a plan."

"We're just sinking," he said. "We're losing ground."

That deep economic anxiety — the undercurrent of every conversation with voters here — existed before the 2008 election, when the economy was sliding into recession.

At that time, Republican candidates, including current hopeful Mitt Romney, referred to Michigan's malaise as a "one-state recession." But ultimately voters directed their anger about it at the outgoing Republican administration, which doomed GOP nominee John McCain.

Now, the angst that led people like the Wittmers to vote for Obama is driving them toward the Republican candidates, who met Wednesday night for a debate in neighboring Oakland County.

"Things were pretty awful before President Obama was even sworn in, but by this point you own the economy," said nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook. "There's just not a state in the union where he's better off today than he was a year ago, and in some states" — particularly industrial Midwestern states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — "the erosion has been greater than others."

National polling shows that Obama's position has weakened most among white, non-college-educated, working- and middle-class voters — just the sort of people who are the dominant force in Macomb County.

Those voters made it onto the national political map in 1984 after reelecting President Reagan with 66% of the vote two decades after Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, won the county with 75% of the vote. Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg studied the Reagan Democrats of Macomb and found they were voting Republican in large part because of their concerns about programs such as affirmative action and the perception that black voters were getting preferred treatment as white middle-class voters lost ground.

In focus groups during the 2008 race, Greenberg found those issues had faded, replaced by fears about the effect of free trade agreements, the outsourcing of jobs and rising prices on everything from gas to healthcare.

Though he has not polled in Macomb recently, Greenberg noted that the concerns of the county's voters have long dovetailed with those of white, blue-collar voters across the country, who abandoned Democrats in droves in the 2010 election. (The Republican candidate for governor swept Macomb County by nearly 25 points).

"They rebelled against Bush in 2006 and 2008 — against the lagging living standards and the economy — and then rebelled in 2010 against a lack of progress on the economy," Greenberg said. "They're still in rebellion. There's no evidence that the president or Democrats have won them back at all since 2010."

That is certainly the case for Elizabeth Schiffler of St. Clair Shores, a 40-year-old independent and avid admirer of former President Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Schiffler wants Obama out of the White House.

"If he is creating all these jobs — where are they?" asked Schiffler, who lost her job at a payroll company in Birmingham, Mich., several months ago. "Why are all these people still unemployed?"

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