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Voters' High Hopes In Obama Confront Hard Reality

Sep 28, 2010

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Did voters really think President Barack Obama was a miracle worker?

That question no doubt popped into many minds when Velma Hart stood up last week and told the president during a town-hall style meeting how "exhausted" she was over having to defend him.

As Roger Simon, a Politico.com columnist writes:

In an interview later with Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post, Hart said, "I was operating off expectations he set during the campaign trail. I thought there was something special and secret he knew that would make things operate differently."

Hart admitted her expectations were unrealistic and that Obama has been in office for only two years.

"But I guess I started to believe, on some small level, that he had a magic wand," she said.

Thanks to Roger for pointing us to the Washington Post story since I'm sure I wasn't alone in missing it when it initially appeared.

That interview echoes the sentiments of many voters; that the president's 2008 campaign, suffused with the promises of "hope" and "change," raised expectations that haven't been met.

On Morning Edition, for instance, NPR's David Schaper reported on the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin.  He talked with a 36-year old union carpenter, Dave Herlitzke, who said he was undecided between Sen. Russ Feingold and the Republican, Ron Johnson.

HERLITZKE: "We definitely need someone that wants to create jobs and that's what we really need and I don't know if Feingold is that or if Ron Johnson is that, you know?"

DAVID: But this union carpenter isn't too happy with the Democrats right now.

HERLITZKE: "I feel that we've seen little change when I thought, we thought there would be big change."

A few thoughts. One, a political candidacy is about many things, not the least of which are marketing and packaging. This is especially true on the presidential level.

That means part of what candidates and their handlers do is try to target their strategy to the desires they hear from voters.

Voters in 2008 wanted change. Obama, with his unusual background and as an African American who won a major party's presidential nomination, was definitely a change.

With the economy imploding and two unpopular wars dragging on, voters wanted hope, too.

So the Obama campaign deftly tailored its message to appeal to that was well.

The media no doubt contributed to these expectations because much of the coverage of Obama, while not as over-the-top as the Time cover that portrayed him as the second coming of FDR, was very positive.

Obama was new and represented a historic first all of which fascinated the media as much as anyone.

But all of this hype and hope ran headlong into a hard reality that the Great Recession was really great, and not in a good way.

Because it was a recession caused by the popping of a financial bubble and a credit crisis, many economists said it would be much harder to climb out than the more typical recession caused, historically, by excess inventories, inflation, falling consumer demand, unemployment etc.

Many of the problems that caused it remain. Much less wealth in the hands of American families, especially because of falling home prices; high debt levels, and financial institutions stockpiling cash to shore up their positions.

Dealing with the recession was going to be very difficult for whoever was in the White House. It's not a defense of Obama to say that. It's just reality.

Voters may have wanted to tamp down their own hopes, given what was facing the nation.

Maybe a little more skepticism was needed. When listening to politicians, in fact, it's probably best not to abandon one's doubts.

And it may be that Obama should've dampened expectations more before the election. But that's not in the DNA of the kind of people who run for president.

To believe you should be president takes not only soaring ambition but the kind of optimism most people would find it difficult to sustain. The sour mood of voters currently just proves the point about how hard it is to keep optimism going during tough times.

Politico's Simon makes an essential point. Obama's White House is bringing a lot of brainpower to bear on problems so complicated just thinking about a few of them is enough to make your head hurt. He writes:

By now, we know there are no wands; he has no magic. He is not a wizard, not a superhero. He is not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

He is just a very smart guy with a very smart team faced by very tough problems and very tough opponents willing to undercut him at every opportunity.

That's the hard reality.

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