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Ohio residents are frustrated with economy and politicians

Ask Kirk Sampson about business and he smiles broadly. It’s booming, he says, before pausing a beat and explaining: He’s in the foreclosure business.

In 35 years as a real estate attorney, the 61-year-old Sampson has never seen a worse economy. “I see people hurting every day,” he says, and by then his smile has vanished.

Sampson doesn’t see Washington doing much to create jobs. To the contrary, President Obama, whom Sampson supported in 2008, seems in over his head. Congress is gridlocked, Sampson says, and the pitchfork battalions of the “tea party” movement have only contributed to the stalemate by opposing any attempts at compromise.

“Honestly,” Sampson concludes, “I don’t expect things to get better any time soon.”

When Obama addresses a joint session of Congress on Thursday night, the president will offer his prescription for boosting the anemic economy and easing the country’s persistently high unemployment rate.

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In doing so, he will plead for understanding and patience from voters like Sampson, a political independent, whose support is vital to Obama’s hopes of winning a second term in 2012.

Few, if any, states will be as crucial as Ohio. The state has voted for every White House winner since 1960. More significant, no Republican has ever been elected president without carrying the Buckeye State, so a victory could go a long way toward boosting Obama’s reelection chances.

But even the president’s strongest backers concede victory here won’t be easy.

Ohio is the most conservative of the Midwestern battleground states, and Obama won in 2008 by less than his national margin of victory. Two years later, fueled by economic angst, the electorate turned around and Democrats were clobbered; Republicans ousted the governor, won every statewide office, defeated five members of Congress and captured big majorities in the Legislature.

The economy has scarcely improved since, as Ohio’s unemployment rate has climbed to 9% after dipping in the spring. It’s 9.3% in the Cincinnati area, which Obama almost certainly has to win to take Ohio.

“Nobody’s happy,” said David Leland, a former state Democratic Party chairman. “If you don’t have a job, that’s the most stressful situation. If you have a job, you’re worried about losing it. And even if you’re successful, you’re watching the Dow Jones go up 500 points, go down 500 points.... It’s like everyone’s just waiting for the next shoe to drop.”

The proof is everywhere in and around this friendly river city. In more than three dozen random interviews, virtually every person spoke of some hardship: the defense lawyer whose business has dropped more than 40%; the bank manager whose spouse has been unemployed for a year; the homemaker whose two sisters are jobless and whose husband was nudged into retirement at age 55.

Bill Studt, 60, lost his administrative job at a hospital after 25 years and took temporary work this summer — for much less pay — overseeing the cleanup crew at a building downtown. Still, with two kids in college, he’s glad to have a paycheck.

So is Stanley McPherson. The 22-year-old, who helps support his parents, wishes he could work more than the 30 hours a week he puts it at a suburban clothing store. But his older brother has been jobless for three years. “It’s tough,” he says during a short break.

Maureen Murphy, a psychologist in Kenwood, just outside Cincinnati, sees patients from “every walk of life, from CEOs to those on the factory floor,” all with one thing in common: “They’re afraid,” she says. “They fear things won’t get better.”

Another thing unifying people here is a seething contempt for Washington and its main actors.

“It’s a mess,” says Van Orsdel, 66, a retired school principal and Republican. “I don’t think there’s any cooperation. I don’t think there’s any concern about what’s going on with people living in the real world.”

Jason Pequignot, 32, an attorney and political independent, says Obama “talks a good game, but seems to be just another politician.” As for the Republicans, “Nobody wants to do anything,” Pequignot says. “They see Obama as dead in the water and don’t want to give him any sort of victory he can run on in the next election.”

In that sort of toxic environment good news is a relative thing, and for the president this is it: Although Republicans like Studt didn’t vote for him and say they never would, Democrats like McPherson are sticking by the president, whom they see as trying his best. “The problem is Congress,” McPherson says. “I don’t see them meeting him halfway.”

More significant, most independent voters, though disappointed with Obama, did not rule out supporting his reelection, if only because none of the Republican alternatives seem especially appealing to them at this point.

Dennis Nitz, 47, a disabled Air Force veteran between jobs, said Obama spent too much time pushing his healthcare plan and not enough focused on jobs. “I expected him to walk in and say, ‘We’ve got to fix this right now,’” Nitz says as the lunch crowd musters at Cincinnati’s downtown Fountain Square. “You would’ve thought that would be his main focus, but it wasn’t.”

Still, Nitz says, he’s inclined to back Obama rather than “see a whole new administration come in and start over.”

For his part, Sampson, the real estate lawyer, doesn’t care for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (“too far right”) or Texas Gov. Rick Perry (“too evangelical”). Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is probably the least objectionable of the GOP hopefuls, Sampson says, but that’s not saying much.

He’d settle for any decent Republican he thought would do a better than Obama. From his tone, however, it’s clear Sampson is not holding his breath.

mark.barabak@latimes.com


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