Jim Kuhnhenn, Associated Press
GREENSBORO, N.C. — If President Barack Obama wants North Carolina in his win column again next year, he might have to count on Elliott Johnson's quiet, even grudging, acceptance rather than the riotous enthusiasm that propelled him to the White House in 2008.
Johnson, a 23-year-old college graduate with a new accounting degree in hand, is an intern at a commercial real estate firm. He would like something more permanent. But many of his college friends aren't finding work, either, and he's counting on a breakthrough in the economy.
"We have to do something different," he said, pausing at a downtown street corner on a sweltering afternoon.
Johnson supported libertarian-leaning Republican Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, for president in 2008, but he's now open to giving Obama a try.
"I feel like there's better out there, but, honestly, I'm not seeing the better right now," he said. "So he may be the best we have."
For the president, struggling against 9.1 percent unemployment and a sluggish economic recovery, that might be as good as it gets these days.
Nationally, his approval ratings hover around or just below 50 percent. But public opinion surveys find that a large majority disapproves of his handling of the economy and even more believe the economy is in a rut. That means the economy will be a dominant factor in determining how many people vote for president next year.
That will be especially critical in contested states such as North Carolina, which hadn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 until Obama eked out a victory three years ago.
Obama is committed to winning here again. The Democratic national convention will be held in Charlotte next year, and Obama is traveling to Durham on Monday to make a jobs pitch and raise his profile.
In 2008, Obama galvanized voters en route to his closest state victory. He beat John McCain by a mere 14,177 in North Carolina.
Interviews last week in the state, which has the 10th highest unemployment rate in the country, revealed widespread economic anxiety among voters.
"I don't think that enthusiasm is quite as broad as it was," said Shirley Tate, a 66-year-old retired teacher and reading specialist from Gibsonville. She knocked on doors and made phone calls for Obama's campaign three years ago.
"We'll have to work two times harder than we did the last time," she said, as she watched for visitors at the gift shop of Greensboro's International Civil Rights Center and Museum where she now works.
Obama does have advantages here that past Democratic presidential candidates did not.
More than 21 percent of the state's population is African-American. The state's Hispanic population is on the rise, a fact not lost on Obama advisers as he mobilizes support for overhauling immigration laws.
What's more, the state's partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans has softened with an increase in unaffiliated voters.
Like Virginia, Florida and Georgia, three other southern states that Obama wants in play in 2012, North Carolina has seen huge population growth in the past 25 years. Most of that growth has been concentrated in metropolitan areas where finance, pharmaceuticals and high tech have replaced old industries such as tobacco and textiles. Some rural areas are hurting under the weight of unemployment that ranges from 12 percent to more than 15 percent.
Major corporations such as IBM, Bayer, and DuPont have a home in North Carolina's Research Triangle in the heart of the academic triad of Duke University, North Carolina State and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. High technology is leaving its imprint elsewhere in the state, too. Apple has invested $500 million toward a $1 billion data center in rural Maiden to handle its new iCloud storage and retrieval service.
Those demographic and economic changes have made states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida more competitive for Democrats.
Nevertheless, Obama still faces a huge challenge motivating voters again like he did in 2008.
Tom Hedrick, a 52-year-old engineer from Lexington said Obama and his advisers have been overly optimistic about his job creation plans. A McCain supporter in 2008, he's looking at the Republican field for a candidate in 2012.
"Three, four months ago they were talking about how it felt like the recession was over and we were pulling out of it," he said as he tasted a cheese dip at a farmers' market about 30 miles from his home. "It's just not happening."
As they do elsewhere in the country, people in North Carolina measure the economy through their own personal indicators. While all express anxiety, some see spring-like signs of rejuvenation while others find little cause for optimism.
At a busy library in Cary, a fast-growing suburb of Raleigh, branch manager Liz Bartlett said that when the recession was at its worst she noticed more residents using the library instead of buying books and using library computers instead of their own.
"It's gotten better over the last two years," she said. "With libraries, we saw fairly deep cuts about three years ago, medium cuts last year, very limited cuts in what we see as our projected budget for the coming year."
Dave Bryson, who runs a jewelry store with his wife in downtown Greensboro, said merchandise sales practically disappeared over the past three years and that he had to rely almost exclusively on his service and repair business to keep the shop going.
"Since Christmas, merchandise has been moving again," he said, interrupting his repairs and pulling off his jeweler's visor. "For our particular business, we just had Christmas, Mother's Day, we had anniversaries and we've sold some engagement rings and some wedding sets recently – and that business had really dried up."
Bryson would qualify as an unaffiliated voter. He voted for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and for Obama in 2008. He's ready to back Obama again
"This economic thing we're going through right now, he inherited that," Bryson said. "Quite honestly I just don't see anybody in the Republican side that's strong enough to win the thing."
A few miles away, arranging peaches at his farm stand, 72-year-old Bernie Watts said he would take any Republican over Obama. He said he finds the president arrogant and cites Obama's blunt "the election is over" rejoinder to McCain during a 2010 health care summit.
"That just turned my stomach," Watts said. "I guess he can feel he can tell everybody what to do."
Republicans, he said, are making an effort to cut spending and "get us out of all this mess."
"We're in debt so deep, I have an 18-month old grandbaby and she's going to have to pay our loss," he added. "And it just tears me up to see that."