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SHIELDS: In Cincinnati, an incumbent president in trouble

In Ohio, which has voted for the winning White House nominee in the last 12 consecutive presidential elections, there has been no major county that has been more reliably Republican than Hamilton, with its county seat of Cincinnati.

In carrying Ohio in 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (and only the third in 96 years) to carry Hamilton County. For President Obama, any realistic route to re-election goes through Ohio, where a strong showing in Hamilton County next November, could significantly improve the Democrat's prospects.

So with just a year to go until Election Day 2012, it made good sense to sit and listen on a Monday night for two-and-a-half hours to 12 Cincinnati-area voters speak openly about their country in the first of a series of focus groups pollster Peter D. Hart will conduct throughout the campaign for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The group's anxieties about the economy were personal. Half of them had immediate family members who had lost their jobs. They are worried about their own and their children's futures. When Hart asked what is "the one thing you thought you would never say about America that you are starting to think now?" Brandon Fox, a 25-year-old safety officer and political independent, dramatized the pervasive apprehension in the room: "I want to live someplace else. I never thought I'd hear myself say that."

When asked for their assessment of President Obama in a word or phrase, George Palmer, 59, who is a development director and voted for Obama in 2008, echoed the disappointment expressed almost unanimously: "I am disappointed in his leadership ... he (the president) doesn't take charge often enough or well enough."

Because I have long believed that American voters, when a president disappoints them in office, immediately seek in their next president the very qualities that were missing in the president who has let them down, I paid close attention when Peter Hart inquired: "The one thing I would like to be able to say about the next president is ..." A majority of the panelists chose "strong leader," followed closely by "tough negotiator." Trailing were "strong foreign policy," "fights for working class" and "business, private-sector experience." Cincinnati did not see Obama as either a strong leader or a tough negotiator.

But Hart's most provocative question was asking the 12 to think about the various types in any fifth-grade class -- such as the teacher's pet, the all-American kid, the nerd, the loner, the know-it-all, the bully, the rich/privileged kid, the kid everyone respects, the star athlete -- and to match them up with the leading Republican 2012 candidates and Mr. Obama.

Eight identified businessman Herman Cain as the "hard worker," and he was also named as "the all-American kid" and "the kid everyone respects." The biggest loser in this round was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom eight called the class "bully" and just one saw as the "star athlete." Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could not be pleased by five seeing him as the "rich and privileged kid," even though the group, based upon his debate performances, had earlier judged Romney the toughest.

But unnerving to Democrats is the fact that President Obama was picked twice as "the loner," the "know-it-all" and the "hard worker," and with one pick for "teacher's pet," "nerd," "the all-American kid" and the "trusted friend." After three years in the White House, the president has forged no strong identity.

A focus group is obviously not a scientific sample. But if you listen closely, you can hear how people actually feel. And with a year to go, the news from Cincinnati for Barack Obama is not reassuring.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.