As Obama enters his second year, Americans who believed ‘yes, he can’ ask: Will he?

By Pauline Arrillaga, AP
Sunday, January 17, 2010

A year later, hope dissolves into disappointment

A year ago, on an Inauguration Day like no other, Barack Obama placed his hand upon the Lincoln Bible and then assured a weary nation that, with hope and virtue, we could “brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”

Across the country, in Seattle, Glen Boyd had only just entered his own economic storm. A couple of weeks out of work as a DIRECTV salesman, the Obama supporter nevertheless watched the inauguration on TV with a kind of goose-pimply, things-are-bound-to-get-better anticipation. He really felt it, that thing which the poet Alexander Pope said springs eternal.

“I felt a tremendous sense of pride. I felt like he was the right guy. I felt a sense of optimism,” recalls Boyd.

Now, a year later, Boyd writes this in his blog: “We believed what the man said in all those ‘yes, we can’ speeches. My one question is, where are all those reassuring speeches now?”

“To say I’m disappointed by the Obama presidency thus far would be an understatement.”

Forget “can,” ”change” and, above all, “hope.” The new word echoing in the blogosphere and beyond as Obama enters Year Two: disappointment.

The polls have shown a wide decline in Americans’ approval of Obama since he first took office last Jan. 20. In fact, according to the latest Gallup Poll, he entered his second year with one of the lowest approval ratings of any president in the last half-century (50 percent of Americans approved of his job performance at the first of January, and 44 percent disapproved.)

John Connelly, a registered Republican who describes himself as an archconservative, feels no disappointment because he never placed any hope in Obama’s presidency in the first place. “I knew what was coming even before he was elected,” says the 68-year-old retired attorney who lives in Carolina Shores, N.C.

Rather, some of the truest Obama believers are among the most letdown.

Consider the anti-war activist upset that Obama has yet to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or the socially liberal surgeon disillusioned with what he sees as a weak stab at health care reform. Or Boyd, “50-ish” and out of work a year now, bitter that the man he backed hasn’t delivered more jobs.

They speak of disappointment in the state of our union. Disappointment in themselves for expecting so much so fast. Disappointment, especially, in the man who, as Boyd says, “raised the bar so high.”

Still others are more disappointed in their fellow Americans’ impatience.

“You pick your issue of the day, and no one’s happy because he hasn’t tackled that one individual issue with fervor,” says fish biologist Tracii Hickman of Walla Walla, Wash., an Obama voter.

She was so inspired by his election that she wrote in a newspaper commentary on inauguration eve last year, “I am optimistic that the massive problems facing our nation will be addressed and that we will come out on the other side of this huge mess a better people and country.”

Her optimism holds. “I do not feel letdown at all,” she says.

But others do, and they feel so strongly that they are moved to write about their disenchantment — on the Web and in letters to the editor, some in anger, others in sorrow, in language intemperate or aggrieved.

“Yes, we can?” writes Boyd. “How about no, we can’t?”

“Barack Obama was elected president by a populace hungry for change and still believing in the possibility of government of, by, and for the people. … his continued focus on a military solution rather than a more humanitarian approach to the roots of terrorism promises a continuation of death, misery, and squandered resources. … In the immortal words of Pete Townsend, we have met the new boss and he’s the same as the old boss.”

—From a letter by Matt Sullivan to the Pleasanton Weekly published on Jan. 1, 2010.

On the second Wednesday of every month, city Councilman Matt Sullivan and a small band of like-minded folks stand, clutching candles, in front of the museum in downtown Pleasanton, Calif. Pleasantonians 4 Peace, they call themselves, and they have vowed to continue these vigils until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over.

A year ago, watching the inauguration, Sullivan felt enormous hope that the end would be soon.

The 53-year-old engineer, a lifelong Democrat, considers himself a pragmatist, especially when it comes to politics. As a councilman, Sullivan sees the compromises that politicians must make, understands the reality that tempers campaign promises. But Obama’s election made him feel a hope and excitement he had never experienced in his life.

“Suddenly we were talking about very important, social issues that have been off the agenda for years. It was so exciting, so refreshing, so inspiring,” Sullivan says.

And, one year later, so disheartening.

“What happened to that guy?” Sullivan asks. “What happened to his vision for the country and for the world? It seems to have vanished.”

Sullivan is disappointed by health care, the economy, energy programs. But what angers him the most are two wars that, he believes, have damaged America’s image abroad and jeopardized the country’s safety.

“Essentially it’s the same rhetoric that Bush used, just with a higher level of intelligence,” Sullivan says.

Perhaps even deeper than his discouragement with Obama is Sullivan’s disillusionment with the entire political system, the sense that if Obama — with all his leadership skills, charisma and determination — cannot change it, nothing can.

“It shakes your belief that representative democracy will actually work for people at large. I guess I won’t say I don’t have any hope remaining. But the only way I think those hopes can be filled is if Obama hears directly from enough people that we think he is not doing the right thing.”

“I voted for President Obama. I believed, perhaps finally, we would get a person of courage and integrity. Sadly, I was wrong. I wanted only two things from him. One was a single-payer universal health care system, like Medicare, like Veterans care, like all of our Congress people have. But he caved to the Republicans, to the health care and pharmaceutical industries, to some cowardly Democrats. What’s left will most likely deliver nothing of value.”

—From a letter by Beverly Wardell to the Herald News in Passaic County, N.J., published on Dec. 2, 2009.

Beverly Wardell and six or seven like-minded friends meet regularly over lunches and catch up by telephone. And for a year now, the new president they all voted for has been a regular part of the conversation.

While most remain optimistic about Obama and believe he needs time to fulfill his promises, Wardell is increasingly disillusioned.

“He spoke eloquently and people understood what he was saying and believed him,” says Wardell, 65, a retired paralegal who lives in Clifton, N.J. “If expectations were raised, it probably wasn’t Obama’s fault completely. I just think people were so desperate after Bush that Obama seemed like a bright ray of hope. So maybe we set our sights too high.”

Wardell’s hopes were invested chiefly in Obama’s pledge to reform the health care system and, to a lesser extent, his promise to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. But while she sees the latter moving forward, the administration’s failure to push a robust public option for health insurance through Congress has been a tremendous frustration, says Wardell, a registered Democrat who considers herself a socially liberal and fiscally conservative independent.

In part, she blames Congress — Democrats for giving in too easily and Republicans for their determination to see the new president fail. But she also blames Obama himself.

“I was hoping that Obama would be in the line of a Franklin Roosevelt, that we would get some things that would help the middle class,” says Wardell.

When a friend without insurance was diagnosed recently with colon cancer, Wardell’s frustration with Obama’s willingness to forgo a public option only increased. She wondered: Why couldn’t he have fought harder?

In three years, Wardell says, she’ll vote for Obama again. She can’t imagine a Republican candidate with anything to offer and while a few other politicians intrigue her, she doubts their electability. But in 2012, it is likely that she will cast her ballot in the spirit of compromise, and not hope.

“President Obama said many times before he took office that the catastrophic state that America is in will take some time to get out of and it would require some patience from the American people. He asked you prior to taking office to give him some time. Where has good old common sense gone? … Give Pres. Obama some time and stop acting like immature brats. Our youth are watching!”

—From a letter by Charleszetta Lewis to the Kokomo Tribune published on Sept. 9, 2009.

Charleszetta Lewis knows disappointment and frustration.

She has watched, helpless, while her 82-year-old, widowed mother struggles with the so-called Medicare “doughnut hole” — the period during which she must pay full price for the blood pressure, diabetes, antidepressant and half-dozen other prescription medications she must take daily.

And she has been embarrassed that the party and president she helped elect have struggled to enact meaningful health reform, despite their majorities. Attempts at bipartisanship have, in her eyes, come across as weakness.

But the retired Chrysler assembly line supervisor is most disappointed in the American people.

“The evil, angry, hostile display of immature American dialogue over the past few months is setting a bad example for our youth,” Lewis, 63, wrote to the Kokomo (Ind.) Tribune last fall, at the height of the “Tea Party” protests. “Blatant anger is not of God.”

When Obama took the oath of office, Lewis drank in the words of the first president whose skin was the same color as hers. She remembers words of hope about the future, tempered by words of caution about the long, hard road ahead.

And she wonders if anyone else was listening.

“He didn’t say he would do it in the first six months,” Lewis says. “He didn’t say in the first eight months, nine months, a year. He said at the end of his first term.”

Lewis says Obama is willing to work to solve the nation’s problems, and she’s willing to meet him halfway. If all goes according to plan, she will come out of retirement soon to open Loving Hands — Kokomo’s first adult day care center.

The center took 15 years and a long “conversation with the Lord” to become a reality. Now, Lewis asks: Shouldn’t we be willing to afford our leader the same courtesy?

“Like watching a bad late-night infomercial, the American people were once again promised one outcome and delivered another. … Yet again, we see ourselves stretching our resources thin by sending more troops overseas. 68,000 troops are already stationed in Afghanistan. No matter how charismatic Obama’s speech, the miracle plan will still be a disappointing sham.”

—From a letter by Jenny Hartz to The University Daily Kansan published on Dec. 2, 2009.

Strolling through the Lawrence County Fair in Lawrence, Kan., last summer, Jenny Hartz experienced an abrupt political conversion.

She had cast her first presidential vote for Obama, had gathered with her church group to watch the election results, watched mesmerized at the galaxy of dignitaries who performed at the inauguration. “I felt such a surge of hope,” Hartz says. “I was just so convinced all these great things were going to happen.”

But she became disillusioned with Obama and his promises, disgusted by the bank bailouts, the wars, the health care debate, and what she considers the lack of any political interest in education.

And so, the 22-year-old English student stopped at a fair booth run by Republican Ron Paul’s “Campaign for Liberty.” A year earlier, Hartz would have dismissed such a group as “a bunch of crazy libertarians with unrealistic ideas and a lot of talk about grass-roots revolution.”

On this day, she listened. And she liked their message of limited government and more individual responsibility.

Hartz, who works part-time at Kohl’s department store, graduated from the University of Kansas last May and hopes eventually to get a job in publishing. Serious and reflective, she doesn’t blame Obama personally for his failure to deliver. She is as guilty as anyone, she says, of pinning all her hopes on one man, of expecting too much too fast.

“He still has a great ability to make things sound pretty and enticing,” Hartz says. “But he hasn’t backed it up by action.”

Hartz still believes in the need for deep, fundamental change. But she also believes it will happen only through grass-roots movements, not through one leader, however charismatic.

“I’m disappointed in Obama … I hoped that either good government (”goo-goo”) liberalism or raw political calculus (like the Republicans in 1995) would lead him to keep some of his non-ideological promises, like on earmarks, transparency, and so on.”

— Posted by David Bernstein on The Volokh Conspiracy blog on Sept. 10, 2009.

David Bernstein never got swept up in the Obama “fervor,” but he still had hope.

A new president, a new start and just maybe, Bernstein figured, Obama could change the way the political game is played in Washington. But a year later, the 42-year-old law professor hasn’t seen it.

“Obama was so popular politically, a lot of people said, ‘Here’s a fresh face with fresh ideas. Hopefully, he’ll deliver,’” says Bernstein, a professor at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia. “But the change turned out to be only change in Bush administration policies, not in how business is done in Washington.”

Bernstein, who says he has “libertarian leanings” but voted for Republican Sen. John McCain for president, says Obama has indulged in the special-interest politics he denounced as a candidate. He cited the budget bill Obama signed last March, which included billions in spending on lawmakers’ pet projects. At the time, Obama insisted the bill must signal an “end to the old way of doing business.”

But Bernstein believes the president — whose popularity ratings were still high last spring — should have used his political capital to veto the budget. He could have delivered an ultimatum to Congress, saying: “‘I need to show the American public what I’m doing is fiscally responsible. … Deal with it.”

“Maybe I’m being naive,” Bernstein adds. “It wouldn’t have made me a supporter. But I would have definitely been behind him then.”

Bernstein has written occasionally about Obama in a legal blog, defending him against accusations his health care reform policies are socialist but criticizing him, too, saying he hasn’t cut unnecessary spending or made government more open. “He lost whatever good will or benefit-of-the-doubt I was inclined to give him by neglecting, backtracking, or going back on his word on all these issues,” he wrote.

It’s still early in Obama’s presidency and Bernstein expects he’ll take increasing control of his political fortunes and separate himself more from Congress. But he still thinks there’s a limit to what he — or any president — can do.

“As charismatic as Obama is, there’s a lot of inertia in America,” he says. “You can’t expect too much change.”

“Just what has Barack Obama done? The man of hope and change has lost hope and makes very little change in his desire to work both sides of the aisle.”

—From a letter by Dr. David Katz to the Ventura County Star published on Aug. 19, 2009.

Katz is a retired vascular surgeon who experienced firsthand in his 30 years in practice an unbalanced health care system that provided the rich private rooms and concierge-type services while those without insurance were treated in public wards or, depending on their skin color, segregated.

So it’s hardly a surprise that Katz, 73, a social liberal and once-ardent Obama supporter, is disappointed in the compromise health care measure likely to emerge from Congress absent a nationwide, government-run insurance option.

More surprising is the real root of Katz’s disappointment. He understands policies take time to enact, wars even longer to end. Practically — intellectually — he gets this. What he can’t shake are the emotions, that profound sense of dejection that one feels when a hero doesn’t live up to the hype.

“You put somebody on a pedestal, you think that he’s got this or that quality, and then you find he doesn’t or you were misled or he’s changed,” says Katz.

When Obama took office, there was, for Katz and Democrats like him, a sense that “our time has finally come” after eight years of George W. Bush.

Now, at the book club meetings Katz attends in Oxnard, Calif., and in conversations with like-minded friends, there are questions — about Obama (Does he just need more time? Is he incompetent, inexperienced? Or is he selling out?) and themselves (Were we fooled? Did we make the wrong choice?)

In one breath Katz talks of broken promises; in the next he acknowledges that Obama’s had only one year. Maybe his promises aren’t broken so much as not yet fulfilled. “How can you throw him to the wolves because of one year of inability to do these things?” he asks, almost to himself.

Perhaps more like a disappointed parent than an unforgiving voter, Katz believes in the promise, too, of a second chance.

“When your mom says she’s disappointed in you, she still loves you and she hopes that whatever her expectations were, that you’ll come up to them,” he says. “This is a guy, who unless he turns out to be like Tiger Woods … looks like a wonderful guy. The kind of guy that you’re glad is your president and when he gives a speech you say, ‘Boy isn’t that terrific?’ And so you hope.

“Hope,” says Katz, “is the magic word.”


Contributing to this story were AP National Writers Helen O’Neill, Adam Geller, Allen G. Breed and Sharon Cohen.

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