Obama's Domestic Policies Are Having Immediate Effects on Race for Va. Governor

Chris Ann Cleland, a real estate agent from Prince William County, discusses her disappointment with President Obama. Video by Sandhya Somashekhar/The Washington Post
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The coffee was still brewing when Chris Ann Cleland got her first reminder of the day that voting for Barack Obama might have been a mistake.

The Prince William County real estate agent was sitting at a long wooden table covered with paperwork. Her clients, a young couple who had brought their 2-week-old baby, were finalizing a short sale on a townhouse that they were anxious to unload, even if it meant ruining their credit, because they had maxed out their credit cards trying to make the payments.

For Cleland, it was another example -- one of many this day -- of the broken promises of a president who she thought would be different. Obama pledged to change a Washington culture that favored corporations and the connected and instead lift families such as the one sitting next to Cleland out of their economic funk. Rather, she said, Obama has backed billions of dollars to banks that continue to "act like they're broke" and started the country down a path that Cleland said she thinks will lead to more grief for the middle class.

"He's just not as advertised," she said. "Nothing's changed for the common guy. I feel like I've been punked."

There is no empirical evidence at this point in Virginia's race for governor showing that huge numbers of voters think like Cleland and will respond by sending a message to Washington. But Obama's policies are nonetheless having immediate consequences in the campaign as the candidates adjust their strategies to account for the president's controversial domestic agenda, which has overshadowed many state issues.

The president will make his first appearance in the campaign Thursday, when he headlines a fundraiser for R. Creigh Deeds (D) in McLean, in part to try to help the state senator from Bath County win over wavering Democrats such as Cleland.

But Obama's entry into the race presents a challenge for Deeds: How does he continue the momentum created by Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than four decades to carry Virginia, without being saddled with the baggage the president now carries?

His answer has largely been to distance himself from the president's policies despite attempts by Republican Robert F. McDonnell to force him to take positions on issues such as unions, climate change and health care.

Deeds has declined to take firm stands, commending the administration's intentions to limit greenhouse gas emissions and expand health care but objecting generally to actions that would strain small businesses and families. He has also accused McDonnell of focusing too heavily on federal issues, declaring in a recent debate that "I'm not running for Congress." And he skipped two health-care town halls hosted by Obama in Virginia in recent weeks, saying it would be inappropriate to mix campaigning with White House policy initiatives.

Supporters of the president say his efforts will pay off for Deeds. But Republicans are gambling that many of Virginia's middle-of-the road voters, who have backed Democrats in recent races, will be up for grabs as people grow more skeptical of Democratic leadership.

"The mood is becoming just as lousy for the Democrats as it has been for us the last couple of years," said J. Kenneth Klinge, a longtime Virginia GOP strategist. "It's evening the playing field."

According to a Gallup poll last week, about 52 percent of Americans approved of Obama's job as president, the lowest number of his tenure. That number rose to 56 percent in the most recent poll but was down from an average of 61 percent early last month and 69 percent immediately after he took office in January.

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