By NANCY BENAC
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s road to re-election is lined with lots of boarded-up homes.
Though the high unemployment rate dominates talk in Washington, for many 2012 voters the housing crisis may well be a more powerful manifestation of a sick economy. And, in an unfortunate twist for Obama, the problem is at its worst in many of the battleground states that will be decisive in determining whether he gets another term.
Swing states Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Michigan — they all pulse red-hot on a foreclosure rate “heat map.” And by themselves those five add up to 80 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
Mortgage default notices surged nationally last month. One in every 118 homes in Nevada received a foreclosure filing in August, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac. One in 248 in Arizona. One in 349 in Michigan. One in 376 in Florida. And so on.
A foreclosure’s impact is visceral and outsized, rippling far beyond one household.
“Entire neighborhoods see what’s going on,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Clinton administration official. “The visibility contributes to the psychology of continued economic troubles.”
There’s the in-your-face eyesore sometimes created by a vacant house next door sprouting weeds on the front lawn.
There’s the downward pressure on housing values that can follow for everyone else in the neighborhood.
There’s the welling frustration felt by neighboring homeowners who may owe more on their own mortgages than their homes are worth.
Nearly a quarter of all U.S. homeowners with mortgages are now underwater, representing nearly 11 million homes, according to CoreLogic, a real estate research firm.
Again, many of the states with the highest underwater mortgage rates also are political battleground states: In Nevada, 60 percent of homeowners are upside down, according to CoreLogic. Arizona is at 49 percent; Florida, 45 percent; Michigan, 36 percent.
Obama will need swing-state voters more than ever in 2012 because of the tougher political climate for Democrats this election season.
Politically, it all adds up to “the thousand-pound gorilla in the room,” says Roy Oppenheim, a Florida foreclosure defense attorney who speaks of “suburban blight” in his home state, of gutted homes, of entire neighborhoods where banks are bulldozing foreclosures.
Obama set high expectations for turning things around, Oppenheim says, and hasn’t been able to deliver, leaving people disillusioned.
“At some point, you don’t judge people by how well they speak, you judge them by their actions,” says the attorney, who backed Obama in the 2008 presidential race. “I continue, I guess, to support him, but I do it very reluctantly.”
None of this has been lost on the president.
When Obama was asked at a forum this summer what mistakes he’d made in handling the recession, and what he’d do differently, he quickly singled out housing. The market didn’t bottom out as quickly as expected, he said, despite multiple administration efforts to help people stay in their homes and to start boosting home values, he said.
The president made only brief mention of the housing problem in his highly anticipated jobs speech this month, but he did promise to expand a government program that helps people refinance their mortgages at lower interest rates. He also proposed a new effort to rehabilitate distressed real estate in areas hard-hit by foreclosures.
The reach of the refinancing program thus far has been a disappointment to many: As of July, more than 838,000 homeowners had managed to refinance through it, but officials had hoped for at least 4 million.
A separate government mortgage modification program hasn’t lived up to expectations either. About 1.7 million Americans have gotten their mortgages modified through it, but it, too, was envisioned to help 4 million.
Brian Deese, deputy director of the National Economic Council, says the figures don’t convey the true benefit of that program because it spurred far more private mortgage modifications. Overall, closer to 5 million modifications have taken place through public and private efforts, according to Deese.
The president has taken a number of other steps in recent months to aid struggling homeowners, including efforts to help the long-term unemployed stay in their homes, to make it easier to obtain mortgage modifications and to turn more vacant properties into rentals.
Deese promises the administration will “stay at it and be as creative and aggressive as we can at taking responsible steps to stabilize the market and help homeowners.”
But private economists caution that there aren’t many tools left.
“There are some things on the margin that they can do, but it’s going to be very difficult for them to make a big difference here quickly,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “These are just really complex problems that don’t lend themselves to a quick policy response.”
The Republican presidential candidates have devoted surprisingly little public comment to the issue. The topic never came up in two recent GOP debates.
But the candidates know the issue is ripe for picking, and it is sure to be used against Obama.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who styles himself as the only presidential candidate with the business savvy to turn around the economy, this spring made a point of visiting a depressed Las Vegas neighborhood in one of the ZIP codes with the worst foreclosure rates in the country. In announcing his candidacy, he equated abandoned houses with abandoned dreams.
The Republican campaign committees are quick to spread the word of new and depressing housing reports.
The public, meanwhile, is running out of patience.
A summertime poll by CBS and The New York Times found that 48 percent of all Americans said they’d been affected by the housing market’s downturn, including 15 percent who said the impact on their family had required major life changes. Nearly as many people felt the government should be doing more about it.
“Most of his efforts have, frankly, failed,” says Orson Aguilar, executive director of the Greenlining Institute, a low-income advocacy group in California. “He needs to really focus more on housing and give it another shot. Everybody has basically given up on the previous proposals.”
Republican strategist Matt McDonald said that while people generally like Obama, there comes a point when they have had enough and say, “’Listen, it’s nothing personal but I’ve got to get things going in my own personal economy.’ ... I would not be banking on the argument of ‘Give me a little more time.”’
Further, McDonald says, because there’s a lag between when economic progress occurs and when people recognize it, “the time they have to practically impact the economy, whether it’s housing or jobs, is probably shorter than people think.”
Associated Press writer Derek Kravitz contributed to this report.
Nancy Benac can be reached at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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