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MICHELE NORRIS, host: This week brought more bad political news for President Obama. The Democrats lost two special elections, one of them in a district that was supposed to be safe. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson explores the message of that loss.

MARA LIASSON: Sometimes off-cycle elections are good predictors of the trends in the next national election, and sometimes they're not. But Tuesday's rout in the heavily Democratic, heavily Jewish 9th congressional district of New York sent a wave of gloom through the Democratic Party. Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition says the results suggest President Obama will have trouble with Jewish voters next year in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

MATT BROOKS: An overwhelming number of Jews, reform Jews, conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews, crossed over and voted for the Republican because, in large part, the concerns that they have with the Obama administration's position on Israel. I think it's very telling.

LIASSON: Democrats say New York 9 is unique. There's no other district in the country with as many conservative Orthodox Jews. Like other observant religious voters, they've been drifting to the GOP for a while. Democrats also say Jews are still one of the most loyal Democratic voting blocs, but they're not as loyal as they used to be. Jewish voters went 80 percent for President Obama in 2008, that was down from 90 percent for Bill Clinton. Political analyst Stu Rothenberg says President Obama does have a Jewish problem.

STUART ROTHENBERG: The president's problem is that too many Jews think that his support is kind of formal, but half-hearted. They really don't trust him and that is a significant problem.

LIASSON: A significant problem not because Jews make up a large voting bloc, but because they're disproportionately Democratic activists and fundraisers. The White House is well aware of this problem. It's doing outreach to Jewish groups to make the point that press secretary Jay Carney made yesterday.

JAY CARNEY: As recently as last week or the week before, the prime minister of Israel made an incredibly strong statement about the remarkable commitment that this president has to Israel's security and the unprecedented assistance that this president has provided Israel.

LIASSON: Rothenberg and others say it would be a big mistake to look at the New York 9 results solely as a reflection of the president's problems with Jewish voters.

ROTHENBERG: Some of this is specific to the Jewish community, but a lot of it is a more general softening of Democratic support for the president.

LIASSON: And that's a much more serious problem, says Mitchell Moss, an expert on urban politics at New York University, who followed the special election won by Republican Bob Turner.

MITCHELL MOSS: The Turner people put a mailer out in which you saw President Obama on a golf course. Nationalizing the race turned out to be an effective way to basically take a Democratic seat and make it a Republican seat.

LIASSON: The headline of that mailer - Washington just doesn't get it - is the kind of attack Republicans will use everywhere next year with all kinds of voters against the Democrats and President Obama.

MOSS: He has fundamental problems, because the employment problems of this country have not been solved and he doesn't look like he understands how to solve them. I don't think this is about Israel. This is about the economy.

LIASSON: Even among Jewish voters in New York 9, polls showed the economy, Social Security and Medicare were more important than Israel. And that, says Moss, is the real takeaway for President Obama.

MOSS: I think the Democrats are in trouble. I think it tells you that there's a lot more in the 2012 electoral map that is contestable than people realize.

LIASSON: New polls from blue states highlight the problem the president is facing among what should be his most reliable supporters. In California, Mr. Obama's approval rating is down to 50 percent. A year ago, it was at 61. A poll in New York shows him at only 45 percent approval. These are dismal numbers for a president who needs the enthusiastic support of Democratic voters in every state. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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