Commentary

Christensen: NCSU again hosts Obama amid a crisis

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2014 

N.C. State University, where the president will speak this afternoon, holds a special place for Barack Obama.

It was at Reynolds Coliseum where Obama – worried that his march to the White House was about to crash and burn – claimed victory in the North Carolina Democratic presidential primary, essentially ending the effort of his chief rival, fellow Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Today, Obama faces a different challenge when he speaks at the J.W. Isenhour Tennis Center: How to refocus a second term that is threatened by problems with his troubled health care program.

Obama’s two trips to N.C. State reflect not only different points of crisis in his career, but starkly different political climates.

“The hope and optimism of 2008 has hit the reality of our polarized political environment,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.

The remedies are far different as well – winning a campaign in 2008, and instilling public confidence in your policies in 2014.

Obama and Clinton had waged hand-to-hand combat across North Carolina and Indiana – which held its primary the same day – in the spring of 2008, shifting back and forth between the states, getting by on a few hours of sleep each night in the week before the primaries.

“We probably worked as hard during that week as we did at any time in the election,” Obama would later recall.

From despondency to celebration

Obama had been thrown off stride and put on the defensive by the controversy surrounding the remarks of his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The night before the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, friends described Obama as despondent, worried that the fallout of the Wright affair would cost him the nomination. “That was the worst night” of the campaign, said Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama adviser and friend.

But on Election Day, internal campaign polls and exit polls showed Obama winning North Carolina (although losing Indiana). By midafternoon on Election Day, Obama was celebrating with a Pabst Blue Ribbon at the Raleigh Times bar and restaurant in downtown Raleigh. That evening, he was delivering his speech at Reynolds.

Although Hillary Clinton did not immediately withdraw from the race, she was, as the New York Post headline put it, “toast.”

“We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one is going to dispute it,” NBC’s Tim Russert proclaimed after the North Carolina returns came in.

Obama went on to carry North Carolina in 2008 by the smallest margin of any state in the country, prompting him to put the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012. That same year, with the state still fighting the effects of the recession, Obama lost North Carolina by his smallest margin in the country.

Approval rating down

As Obama returns to NCSU, his polling numbers in North Carolina and nationally are among his worst ever, said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh firm with Democratic leanings.

Obama’s approval rating in North Carolina now stands at 40 percent, and his disapproval rating at 54 percent, the firm found. They began to crater last fall with the disastrous rollout of the health care law.

“We have definitely found that when Obamacare is in the news, Obama is at his lowest numbers,” Jensen said. “We have consistently found that Obamacare is very unpopular in North Carolina, with two-thirds thinking that the implementation has been a failure.”

Coinciding with the drop in Obama’s numbers has been a sharp decline in the approval rating of Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, suggesting her fate is tied to both Obama and the success of the health care program. Hagan said she will not appear with Obama, citing the Senate’s potential voting schedule.

The Hagan Senate race in November is “the canary in the coal mine,” Bitzer said. That election will help determine whether Obama will have a Democratic or a Repulican U.S. Senate during the final two years of his presidency.

Focusing on jobs

Obama will use his visit to announce a new initiative with the private sector to boost advanced manufacturing. A similar effort to create jobs is being pushed by the state’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. McCrory plans to welcome Obama at the airport.

Obama is coming back to NCSU with the Republicans in control of state government and an energized tea party movement, which has given rise to a “Moral Monday” movement in response. Obama’s Justice Department is challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new voter ID law as well as other voting law changes.

As Obama prepares for his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, he is expected to refocus his attention on questions of inequality – and proposals such as extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, raising the federal minimum wage and increasing worker training.

North Carolina has been at the heart of the debate. The legislature last year made the sharpest cuts in unemployment benefits in the country. This has sparked a public policy debate about the impact of the cuts.

Bitzer said he expects income inequality to be one of the focuses of Obama’s speech at NCSU.

“He is coming into, I wouldn’t say it’s a hostile environment, but it’s an environment that is highly skeptical of what he has as his signature policy achievement,” Bitzer said.

“The question is: Can he reframe the debate? Can he shuffle the dynamic of how people look at him and, by extension, how they look at Kay Hagan into a more positive light?”

VIDEO: Can President Obama get his second term back on track?

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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