Obama and the politics of the housing foreclosure crisis

at 04:00 PM ET, 10/24/2011

President Obama is in Nevada today touting the federal government’s new program to ward off the foreclosure crisis. And there’s a lot at stake — mostly because of the states that have been hit the hardest by the crisis.


Renzo Salazar, from Real Signs of Ace Post Holding Inc., places a bank owned sign on top of a for sale sign in front of a foreclosed home on Oct. 13, 2011 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle - GETTY IMAGES)
The two states with the highest foreclosure rates — Nevada and Florida — are also two of the bigger swing state prizes on the 2012 presidential map. And other states that rank in the top ten in terms of home foreclosures — including Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and Ohio — are also likely to be a major part of Obama’s electoral math. (For more on where foreclosures are concentrated, see this great heat map.)

Data earlier this year from CoreLogic.com showed that nearly two-in-three Nevada homeowners owed more on their property than their homes were worth — a situation also known as being “underwater.” Nevada was followed by Arizona (51 percent), Florida (47 percent) and Michigan (36 percent) in terms of underwarter loans.

In other words, the four states with the highest percentages of underwater homeowners are all large states with major electoral vote treasure troves where both parties are likely to spend money in the presidential general election.

These are the voters, er, people that Obama’s new executive order, which will allow homeowners struggling to refinance their mortages at very low rates, is targeting.

If the program succeeds, Obama could reap some significant rewards in states that are central to his 2012 chances. There are 89 electoral votes to be had in Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Nevada, Florida and Colorado alone — roughly one-third of the 270 electoral votes a candidate needs to win. (Obama won every one of those states, save Arizona, in 2008.)

But, there are clearly hurdles to Obama’s winning the foreclosure message war.

As the Post’s Zach Goldfarb noted in a great piece over the weekend, the Obama administration’s plan to manage the foreclosure crisis using funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout hasn’t worked as well as planned. So the administration is already working at a deficit on this issue.

When it comes to the new plan, expectations may be a little lower. Goldfarb is also reporting that a graphic released by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) indicates savings could be as low as $26 per month for beneficiaries, even though the administration is touting the idea that families could save up to $200 monthly.

Critics of the plan note that it aims to help one million homeowners refinance, despite the fact that there are about 11 million homeowners that are underwater.

The other major potential messaging pitfall for Obama is if people see this housing action as another bailout. We’ve noted before just how toxic that word is in today’s political environment, and the federal government subsidizing the refinancing of a million home mortgages is pretty easy to cast as another handout.

Even if it helpsone million underwater homeowners, there will be another ten million underwater homeowners who don’t get help. And tens of millions more who might wonder why underwater homeowners are getting a break when they aren’t.

On the other hand, how many bailout opponents were on Obama’s side before this proposal? (Answer: Somewhere between few and none.) The argument can certainly be made that, while the program might inflame bailout critics nationwide, they would never have voted for the president anyway. And if it can improve Obama’s fortunes in some key states, it will have been worth it.

Keep an eye on Obama’s numbers in the states mentioned above to see if they rise or fall in the wake of his foreclosure announcement. The foreclosure issue remains a potent one over the next 12 months and shouldn’t be underestimated, if only because it disproportionately benefits key elecotral states.

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