When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight, he’ll be facing many of the same problems, sluggish economy, two wars, and a mounting deficit, but his job is likely to become harder. Republicans have taken control of the U.S. House this month.
How did Obama who some proclaimed could levitate end up like Ronald Reagan after his first two-years? And maybe the most important question, why didn’t Democrats turn out in huge waves last month as they did in 2008?
With that in mind we went looking for answers in Northwest Philadelphia, bluer than blue on any political map. In November 2008, voters from East Falls to Germantown turned out in record numbers to propel Barack Obama into the presidency. Some wards reported that nearly 99% of all votes cast were for Obama.
Where did all the love go?
“I had never been really involved in politics,” said Poppy Bass, a 48-year-old project manager at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who worked the phones in the Obama campaign’s Mt. Airy headquarters. “But there was something about Obama — the fact there was going to be the first African-American in a position like this. I got wrapped up in it. This was the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of history and it felt good,” Bass said.
“I feel bad,” she said. “I feel sorry for him.”
Others offered tepid praise.
“I think there’s not a policy that he has advocated loudly that I disagree with in particular,” said Ken Beiser, 50, of West Mt. Airy. “What I’m concerned about is that he’s managed to fail to communicate what he’s done.”
Beiser, a commercial solar project developer, attended the October 10 rally in Germantown. He noted that President Obama, in his 28-minute speech, did not mention the war in Afghanistan once. “There’s no votes in it,” he reasoned. “I would see that as a pretty significant gap in terms of accomplishment.”
Van Williams, 61, of Mt. Airy, shared a sense of disappointment. Obama, he said, “has not been perfect. He’s had a few missteps, but he’s human.”
Dan Malone, 53, a Mt. Airy native who came from New York to attended last year’s Germantown rally, believes Obama “has lost control of the political narrative. The Republicans and right-wing cable stations have framed the issues. President Obama too often seems distant and even disconnected from the problems people are suffering.”
Not everyone in the Northwest agrees that the President’s failures have been self-inflicted. “The last administration was not honest with us about why we went to Iraq,” said Debbie Garrett. “He is Commander-in-Chief so he has to make tough choices. And now it’s all on his shoulders.”
Garrett, 60, coordinated the phone bank in the Northwest Philadelphia Obama campaign office in 2008, which came in first in the city in the number of calls made. She worked the phones again on the weekend before the November 2 mid-term elections.
“I don’t sense there’s been a change in the admiration for this President, across the board, regardless of races,” Garrett said. “The drive is still there for this president to succeed.”
Progress takes patience
In Mt. Airy, Van Williams is among those who are willing to wait for Obama to deal more effectively with education, housing and the economy. “I’m in that middle class and I feel that squeeze,” he said, “but I also feel that we’re trying to move things in the right direction.”
Bass, too, reflected some tempering of the “Yes We Can” fever. “I think that change is going to come in really little steps and we need to be patient,” she said.
In 2008, John Andrews of Chestnut Hill canvassed for Obama and worked to get out the vote. Two years later, he said “I’m extremely supportive. I have almost no doubt in my mind that people will look back and view his presidency more positively than they do right now.”
WHYY FM, WHYY-TV and NewsWorks.org will provide live coverage of the President’s State of the Union speech, Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 9 p.m.