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Obama’s likability is keeping him afloat

Kristen Wyatt

People like Christine Alonzo are keeping President Barack Obama afloat and giving his political team hope that he can win re-election despite high unemployment and sour attitudes about his policies and the country’s future.

Alonzo volunteered for Obama during the 2008 campaign. A few months after Obama’s victory, she lost her job. She’s still looking for work. Instead of blaming Obama for the economic crisis, she’s volunteering full time to help him capture a second term.

“It’s tough out there,” Alonzo says. But, the 43-year-old adds, “I don’t think our president’s had enough time to get us back to where we need to be.” She still likes him even though she’s not hot about the state of the country. “He’s got the intelligence, the drive, to get this country back on track.”

This is a factor any Republican challenger must consider: Public opinion polls routinely show that Americans like the president personally even though they don’t agree with his policies, even if hurt by them.

People who have lost their jobs or homes during Obama’s presidency nonetheless say they want him to succeed and, what’s more, they’re working to help re-elect him because of the affinity they feel for him.

“A lot has not been accomplished, we know that,” said Kathleen McKevitt of Jerome, Idaho, who lost her job just before Obama took office and has struggled to find full-time work. “That doesn’t mean we don’t like Obama.”

It’s a bright spot in an otherwise dreary political environment for the incumbent.

There are fears the country may fall back into a recession. The unemployment rate is stuck at a stubbornly high 9.1 percent. Foreclosures are rampant. The effect on Obama’s job-performance rating: They’ve fallen to the mid-40s, a low point.

Democrats acknowledge it could be even worse if not for the high marks Obama gets for who he is compared with the low marks for what he does.

“There are a lot of people out there who like the president, who think he is a good, decent person who is trying hard. They may have issues about the economy. They may have issues about the direction of the country. But there are a lot of voters out there who are giving him the benefit of the doubt,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist in Washington. “Heading into the election year being well-liked puts him in a good position as he begins to make the contrast with the other side.”

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that nearly 8 in 10 people considered Obama a likable person, and slightly more than half said he understands the problems of ordinary people. Even among those who said the United States is headed in the wrong direction, 43 percent had a favorable opinion of the president, 10 points higher than his job approval rating among that group.

Obama’s advisers point to his favorability ratings as an asset when the eventual GOP nominee tries to make the case for change in the White House in 2012.

“They’re going to tell you that everyone’s left the president, no one likes Obama anymore. They are so totally wrong,” Obama’s national field director, Jeremy Bird, told volunteers in Denver recently. “Yes, people are frustrated with the economy, with jobs. But when they look at the president, the president’s character … they’re all in support.”

To be sure, there are plenty of people who are sitting out the campaign this time.

Liberal activists have complained about Obama’s handling of issues such as taxes and the government’s borrowing limit. They’ve criticized the president for not being more aggressive with Republicans in Congress. Many said they will focus their energies on state and local races next year.

Some supporters recently gathered to be trained by Bird as Obama volunteers in Denver, where Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in 2008 at Mile High Stadium.

Campaign staffers reminded them of the affinity they felt for Obama, showing a video of his rousing address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. That’s where the future president outlined his compelling life story and said his rise would be possible only in America.

The pitch got a nod from 60-year-old volunteer Betsy Daniel of Denver.

“When the debt ceiling debate was going on, it was tough sledding,” Daniel said. “But we feel like we’re working for a better America, so we keep going. Sure, there isn’t the same enthusiasm. But I have every reason to believe we’re laying the groundwork for it.”

For the president, that groundwork includes a Western visit to keep his fans engaged.

Obama, who was scheduled to leave Washington on Sunday, planned to raise money in Seattle and the San Francisco area before a town hall-style event Monday at the Computer History Museum near the headquarters of social networking site LinkedIn in Mountain View, Calif.

Additional fundraisers are set for San Diego and Los Angeles before the trip ends with a speech in Denver on Tuesday where he intends to promote his jobs plan.

Denver-based political strategist Jill Hanauer said the president has two objectives: convince supporters on the left that he’s serious about pushing tax increases for the rich to pay for his $447 billion jobs plan, while sending signals to independent voters that they should trust him to keep trying to turn around the economy.

“If voters feel he’s authentically trying to make things better, that works for him,” said Hanauer, founder of Project New West, a consulting firm with liberal clients. “Some folks can maybe be disappointed in him, but he’s a likable person.”

That’s what helps keep McKevitt coming back to him no matter how frustrating the search for full-time work is. She’s moving to Carson City, Nev., this month to volunteer full time for him.

“You look at the president, and you see a family man facing a great, great hardship on all fronts. People understand that,” said McKevitt. She lost her editing job at a weekly newspaper that folded shortly before Obama was elected and she recently won a campaign essay contest to have lunch with the president.  “People like how reasonable he is, and people feel that. He’s a soul kind of guy, with depth.”

Heather Barr of Phoenix, a 41-year-old real estate agent in Arizona, didn’t volunteer for Obama in 2008.

But seeing the housing collapse up close compelled her to get involved this time. She lost her home a month ago and is living in an apartment. She doesn’t blame Obama but rather is giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Said Barr: “I know things aren’t great. People are concerned, obviously. But what I hear is, people want to give the president more time. This economic trouble that we’re in didn’t happen overnight.”

For Deborah Holland of Albuquerque, N.M., a personal feeling of connection to the president overrides thoughts about Obama’s performance and the economy, even with the stress of a precarious job situation. The 50-year-old cobbles together work as a caterer, cake decorator and office manager, even though she has a law degree.

“When we first got to know him in 2008, it was evident he came from humble beginnings,” Holland said. “And I think a lot of us can relate to that. We feel comfortable with that.”

Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.