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In Iowa, second thoughts on Obama


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November 3, 2009

In Iowa, Second Thoughts on Obama

By JEFF ZELENYWILLIAMSBURG, Iowa — Pauline McAreavy voted for President Obama. From the moment she first saw him two years ago, she was smitten by his speeches and sold on his promise of change. She switched parties to support him in the Iowa caucuses, donated money and opened her home to a pair of young campaign workers.


But by the time she received a fund-raising letter last month from the Democratic National Committee, a sense of disappointment had set in. She returned the solicitation with a handwritten note, saying, “Until I see some progress and he lives up to his promises in Iowa, we will not give one penny.”


“I’m afraid I wasn’t realistic,” Ms. McAreavy, 76, a retired school nurse, said on a recent morning on the deck of her home here in east-central Iowa.


“I really thought there would be immediate change,” she said. “Sometimes the Republicans are just as bad as Democrats. But it’s politics as usual, and that’s what I voted against.”


One year after winning the election, Mr. Obama has seen his pledge to transcend partisanship in Washington give way to the hardened realities of office. A campaign for the history books, filled with a sky-high sense of possibility for Mr. Obama not just among legions of loyal Democrats but also among converts from outside the party, has descended to an unfamiliar plateau for a president whose political rise was as rapid as it was charmed.


Interviews with voters across Iowa offer a window into how the president’s standing has leveled off, especially among the independents and Republicans who contributed not just to his margin of victory in the caucuses here but also to the optimism among his supporters that his election would be a break from standard-issue politics.


For Democrats, the immediate peril of failing to hang on to some of these swing voters could play out Tuesday in the governor’s race in Virginia, a state Mr. Obama wrested away from Republicans last year but where the Democratic candidate for governor has struggled to recreate Mr. Obama’s enthusiastic coalition.


In Iowa, Ms. McAreavy fears that the president’s health care plan will shortchange her Medicare benefits and mean infrequent mammogram examinations. She worries that his decision on Afghanistan will mean that her son, a member of the Iowa National Guard, will return to the battlefield. And she believes that too many of Mr. Obama’s actions are rooted in Democratic politics.


“All my Republican friends — and independents — are sitting back saying, ‘Oh, what did we do?” Ms. McAreavy said. “I’m not to that point yet, but a lot of people are.”


Mr. Obama still has generally strong approval ratings and the opportunities that come with a Democratic majority in Congress. Public opinion about him remains in flux, particularly as he heads into the endgame of a push to overhaul the health insurance system and nears a decision about whether to expand the war in Afghanistan.


But an erosion of support from independents and disapproval from Republicans suggests that the coalition Mr. Obama built to win the White House is frayed.


In few places did people get a longer and closer look at Mr. Obama than in Iowa, a swing state home to deep strains of both conservatism and liberalism. Mr. Obama was a constant presence here during the formative months of his candidacy. Many voters have pictures of him on their mantels, looking him in the eye as they took a measure of the man and the politician before giving him a crucial victory in the caucuses.


A social studies teacher who saw Mr. Obama on his maiden visit here wonders whether momentum from the election is gone forever. A retired electrical engineer who became a Democrat to support Mr. Obama believes that the president too often blames others for his troubles. And a teacher who voted for Mr. Obama because she was fed up with President George W. Bush does not trust this administration any more than the previous one.


Yet a laid-off factory worker who returned to school for a degree said Mr. Obama’s support for a new economy had changed his thinking. A public relations executive who changed parties to support Mr. Obama says he saved the nation from fiscal collapse. And a nurse who believes Mr. Obama could be a transformative president, because of health care and other issues, worries that the vitriol could endanger his life.


The Iowa Poll, published in September by The Des Moines Register, showed that Mr. Obama’s approval rating had fallen to 53 percent, from 64 percent in April. In interviews around the state, the economy emerged as one of the most worrisome undercurrents.


“I’m scared,” said Chris Bollhoefer, 49, who lost his job two years ago at Maytag in Newton. “The competition right now, with all the people who have lost jobs that are highly qualified, really puts you up against the wall trying to compete.”


Mr. Bollhoefer said he approved of the job Mr. Obama was doing. “It’s inspirational to me that he’s trying to do something different,” he said.


As a candidate, Mr. Obama soared, several people said in interviews, but as a president, he often has come across as cautious, tentative and prone to blame his troubles on others.


“I think he was more presidential when he was running for office than he is now,” said Paul Johnson, 58, a student legal services lawyer at Iowa State University. “He seems more subdued, which is probably a result of having to actually deal with the issues on his plate as opposed to just rallying the troops to vote for him.”


Mr. Johnson and his wife, Kathy, are loyal Democrats, but Mr. Obama was not their first, second or third choice during the Iowa caucuses that opened the party’s primary on Jan. 3, 2008. At the time, the Johnsons favored, in order, John Edwards, Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Hillary Rodham Clinton. When Mr. Obama won the nomination, however, they eagerly supported him, and now they say they believe he is doing well, but they often wonder if he is assertive enough.


“It’s overdue for him to actually take charge here,” said Ms. Johnson, 57, a social worker in the town of Nevada.


One thing that would sour them on Mr. Obama, they said, would be a steep escalation of the war in Afghanistan.


Even with the complaints, many Democrats said the president had single-handedly improved the United States’ image in the world. They said he had already accomplished a great deal, considering the raft of crises that greeted him, and they said they believed in his ability to deliver on remaking the nation’s health care system and on other priorities.


Candi Schmieder, 40, said she trusted the president. The election in Iowa County, where she lives, ended in a tie in November. Mr. Obama won by 14 votes after absentee ballots were tabulated. If a re-election were held today, she said, she feared that the outcome might be different.


“Given all the situations that he’s dealing with — the economy and the war — I think it’s going to take some work,” said Ms. Schmieder, who had never been involved in politics but said she had been drawn to Mr. Obama by his books.


As Mr. Obama approaches the anniversary of his election, the sense of possibility and the dash of romance that moved many voters are no longer apparent. The challenges of governing have eaten away at the optimism. The pace of government intervention has also jarred many voters.


John Sager, a retired electrical engineer, said he was so impressed by Mr. Obama last year at the United Auto Workers hall in Marshalltown that he allowed his name to be promoted on a list of Republicans supporting Mr. Obama before the Iowa caucuses.


“He gave a fairly decent presentation, but that’s what it turned out to be — a presentation,” said Mr. Sager, 77. “I don’t think he should keep hiding behind the fact that he inherited all these problems.”


Kathy Shaffer, 60, a retired school teacher, did not tell her husband, Larry, a staunch Republican, that she had she voted for Mr. Obama until recently. She said she had been frustrated by the Iraq war, fed up with the Bush administration and eager for a change.


Now, Ms. Shaffer said she regretted her vote, largely because she disapproved of how the government had intervened to help failing financial institutions and car companies. She also fears that Mr. Obama will send more troops to Afghanistan.


“I want to be a Republican domestically and probably a Democrat on foreign policy — I’m in a lose-lose situation,” Ms. Shaffer said.


Asked if her disappointment would keep her from supporting Mr. Obama again, she paused for a moment.


“I hate to vote against someone,” she said. “I want to vote for someone.”



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