Illustration by Gracia Lam
At every lunch or dinner I attend I hear the same lament: What happened to Barack Obama? Reactions range from perplexed to borderline vitriolic as people try to untangle the mystery of our slumping-in-the-polls president. Beneath the emotional response is a pervasive fear. Could Obama actually lose California? That would have been unthinkable a few months ago, but today a lot of concerned voters are asking that question. We live in a Democratic state. Certainly my piece of this city, the Westside pocket I have always called home, is most decidedly of that bent. What happened to the guy? they ask. Were we duped somehow? That is the underlying refrain: Where did the man whose rhetoric and promise we swooned over a few short years back go? Everyone used to be excited when the president came through our nook of the world—a prince touching down. Now all anybody does is gripe about the traffic when he makes one of his money-gathering pit stops.
Deep in our civic marrow we were rooting for the first black president of the United States to be as magical in office as many of us had felt putting him there. It was goose bump time—no question—that night he appeared in Chicago to claim victory, his photogenic family beside him. Obviously there were naysayers on the right and on the committed left, but in general, on Election Day the country was on a historic high. We had done something many of us thought impossible. I remember looking at my big, tough husband as he watched the speech on TV, and there were tears in his eyes. He had grown up poor in the South and become a journalist. He had covered the major civil rights battles of the early 1960s and was in Birmingham, Alabama, when those four children were killed in the church bombing. No, he said, staring at Obama, not in his lifetime did he expect to see such a moment.
Since then we have watched Obama slip steadily from that exalted place. This fall the national polls showed the president’s approval rating at about 45 percent. The obvious reasons are the struggling economy, the lousy job picture, the mortgage mess—and those two drag-on wars. For quite a stretch people were somewhat sympathetic toward a clearly graying man who had inherited so much trouble. They hoped he could make a difference, knock some sense into the excessively partisan leaders of Congress and get the ship of state headed in the right direction. But goodwill has eroded in the face of ongoing economic travails.
Despite our woes, we in California hung on the longest in our support for Obama. Even as the foreclosure crisis swept through the state, even as the employment numbers grew grimmer, we stayed on the president’s side. Up until midyear more than half of Californians thought he was doing a good job. An honorable man caught in a miserable set of circumstances not of his own making—that was the thinking. Give the guy a chance. Let’s find out what he’s really made of. That attitude says a lot about us, about our intrepid—some might say delusional—optimism. That’s in our DNA. Things aren’t as bad as they seem; we can fix them. We are the Golden State. So many come here to start over, to chase a dream. What bigger dreamer could there be than a skinny kid with a white mom and a black dad who got himself all the way to the White House? Talk about a Hollywood script.
We are also far from the nit-picking fray, the Beltway world of day-to-day dissection and punditry. When I’m on the East Coast, I am always amused by the attention people pay to every small utterance from the powers that be. The media call the political twists and turns as they might a baseball game: who’s on first, who hit into a double play. My wonkiest L.A. friends, including those who have worked on campaigns, don’t get involved in that minutiae. They keep their distance. More and more of my chums are put off by the constant jabbering. They don’t tune into the (so-called) news shows or track things digitally. Part of the draw of living on this coast is the literal, but also psychological, separation from Washington. All that skirmishing seems silly, maddening, and far away.
So what should we make of the latest poll numbers, which showed that fewer than half of California’s voters—much like the national numbers—approve of Obama’s job performance? He’s losing us, and that’s got to be a scary development for his reelection team. There is a sense that the man who seemed so capable, so people savvy, is, in fact, not. Rather, he’s someone who doesn’t have enough grit or executive ability to put a deal together (think of the debt ceiling debacle)—there is a disconnect between his obvious gifts and his ability to deliver. Underneath the complaints is an existential concern: Who is Barack Obama, and what will he go to the mat for? He comes off as temperamentally careful, fearful of alienating a single potential voter. I get it. We all do. But it doesn’t play well.
In contrast we have a governor who is pointedly decisive. Who would have thought it: Our once-seemingly flaky leader is now the wise elder statesman—someone ready to stand up and be counted. Jerry Brown is one of the few politicians in California whose poll numbers are going up. It’s a remarkable feat given the high unemployment rate. But even those disgruntled about the direction in which the state is going—they think that the higher education system, our shining symbol, is under siege—give him credit for trying. They believe him. Brown reads authentic. They think he is a good guy, a straight shooter without a phony bone in his body.
He feels like the anti-pol, someone who is not running for anything. As he has joked, he’s too old to think about reelection. But his appeal is more than that; it is dispositional—or if you will, oppositional. Out of the gate he recalled some state-issued cars and cell phones. More recently he signed the two-part California Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrant students access to public and private funding for college. They tried a similar bill on the national level, but again Obama couldn’t deliver. While the rest of the country is busy relaxing firearms controls, our governor signed a bill banning carrying a handgun openly. There are guts at work here, moral guts. Here’s a leader willing to do something, no matter the popular current.
Held up against Brown, Obama seems not only cautious but also slightly humor deficient. Every now and again you see a flash of that wide smile, hear an unrehearsed quip, and it’s like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. In troubled times one wants a little levity, a little spontaneity—a sense that a human being is in there. Increasingly the president seems canned. You feel the presence of the teleprompter. Conversely he is in danger of compromising his campaign-days gravitas—that rhetorical passion that helped him win. His speeches are lackluster, defensive. He has also developed the habit of dropping his gs. That’s somethin’. We have to get movin’. It makes him sound affectedly folksy. This is a Harvard-trained lawyer, after all.
Californians like to think of themselves as risk takers, not tiptoers. The president had the greatest narrative going. He dreamed himself big; he grabbed the brass ring. The story since then has been unsatisfying, to say the least—as if the script tapered off. Obama in many ways is a westerner, a child of Hawaii, a product of the ultimate American frontier. In short, he was one of us. Now he seems opaque, difficult to figure out.
Did we expect too much? Probably. Obama was brought to power by historic forces, and historic forces have been aligned against him. I ask my husband whether he is disappointed. He shrugs. He’s a realist with streaks of both sentimentality and cynicism. “Politicians are politicians,” he says, “no matter their color. I learned that early on, so I wasn’t looking for a great savior. But I will never forget that night he was elected. I am just glad I was around to see it.”
I have to say: Me, too.
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