RALEIGH — President Barack Obama’s latest visit to North Carolina on Wednesday is expected to focus on ways to improve a national economy that’s recovering, but not humming when it comes to job creation.
His speech at North Carolina State University and also could signal to voters - and fellow Democrats - they’re not forgotten in a state where policies have moved decidedly to the right.
The president also wants to try to improve his standing in North Carolina, where people haven’t been happy with his leadership recently on the health care law’s rollout, political experts said. While Obama’s name won’t be on the ballot again, the race for Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s seat will be at the top of the North Carolina ticket in November.
“It’s the kind of state where a visit can make a difference,” Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper said Tuesday. “It’s a state that’s still in play.”
Obama has visited North Carolina more than a dozen times since becoming president and he accepted the Democratic nomination in 2012 in Charlotte. But North Carolina’s electoral votes narrowly went to Mitt Romney that fall, four years after Obama edged out a victory in the state.
During 2013, Republicans controlling the legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time in more than a century pushed forward an agenda increasingly hostile to the Democrats in Washington. The GOP rejected expanding Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of people through Obama’s health care overhaul, and reduced unemployment benefits that ultimately led Washington to terminate emergency assistance benefits for the long-term jobless.
Since the president last visited in June, Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislature approved a law placing new restrictions on how people vote in person, including the requirement of a photo ID. Several lawsuits have challenged the law, including litigation filed by the U.S. Justice Department, alleging the changes will suppress voter turnout among the poor and minorities.
The Justice Department lawsuit shows the Obama administration is willing to intervene in North Carolina matters, said state Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham.
“The president coming here means that he still considers North Carolina an important state politically and from a policy perspective,” Woodard said. “And certainly he understands the importance of the 2014 elections.”
Republicans probably must unseat Hagan if they want to take control of the Senate again. GOP officials made a lot this week out of Hagan’s decision not to join the president at the N.C. State indoor tennis center. Her office said she won’t be there because the Senate is working.
Republicans aren’t buying it, saying Hagan doesn’t want to be seen with an unpopular Obama and be linked to his health care overhaul.
“Hagan doesn’t want to remind North Carolinians that she has been a rubber stamp for President Obama and his failed liberal agenda,” state Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope said in a statement. GOP and conservative activists plan to protest Wednesday at N.C. State.
An Elon University Poll in mid-November found 37 percent of the North Carolina registered voters approved of the president’s job, while 54 percent disapproved. Hagan’s job approval numbers were better.
Hagan voted for the health care law in 2010 but has tried to exhibit independence by criticizing the operation of the federal health insurance exchanges.
The White House announced late Tuesday the president also intends to tour a Triangle-area company that builds devices to control electric motor speeds for better energy efficiency.
Obama intends to draw attention in Raleigh to manufacturing innovation hubs like he promoted in his State of the Union address a year ago. He came to Buncombe County the day after that speech for a similar pitch.
The U.S. jobless rate of 6.7 percent is below the North Carolina’s rate of 7.4 percent. The state’s rate has fallen by 2 percentage points over the past year - a decline Republicans attribute in part to their tax and regulatory policies. Democrats argue it conceals people who have dropped out of the workforce.
Longtime state Republican strategist Marc Rotterman said Obama’s prescription for the economy is “diametrically opposed” to the GOP. The event is a photo-op “won’t change any dynamics for Americans until he changes his policy,” Rotterman said.
Democrats and allied advocacy groups backing the president’s policies want him to provide a contrast to GOP laws they say have hurt the poor, public education and voters.
“All of us want to hear him say that he will continue to push forward a progressive agenda,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state conference of the NAACP and leader of a movement to oppose North Carolina Republican policies.