By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
The coffee was still brewing when Chris Ann Cleland got her first reminder of the day that voting for Barack Obama might have been a mistake.
The Prince William County real estate agent was sitting at a long wooden table covered with paperwork. Her clients, a young couple who had brought their 2-week-old baby, were finalizing a short sale on a townhouse that they were anxious to unload, even if it meant ruining their credit, because they had maxed out their credit cards trying to make the payments.
For Cleland, it was another example -- one of many this day -- of the broken promises of a president who she thought would be different. Obama pledged to change a Washington culture that favored corporations and the connected and instead lift families such as the one sitting next to Cleland out of their economic funk. Rather, she said, Obama has backed billions of dollars to banks that continue to "act like they're broke" and started the country down a path that Cleland said she thinks will lead to more grief for the middle class.
"He's just not as advertised," she said. "Nothing's changed for the common guy. I feel like I've been punked."
There is no empirical evidence at this point in Virginia's race for governor showing that huge numbers of voters think like Cleland and will respond by sending a message to Washington. But Obama's policies are nonetheless having immediate consequences in the campaign as the candidates adjust their strategies to account for the president's controversial domestic agenda, which has overshadowed many state issues.
The president will make his first appearance in the campaign Thursday, when he headlines a fundraiser for R. Creigh Deeds (D) in McLean, in part to try to help the state senator from Bath County win over wavering Democrats such as Cleland.
But Obama's entry into the race presents a challenge for Deeds: How does he continue the momentum created by Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than four decades to carry Virginia, without being saddled with the baggage the president now carries?
His answer has largely been to distance himself from the president's policies despite attempts by Republican Robert F. McDonnell to force him to take positions on issues such as unions, climate change and health care.
Deeds has declined to take firm stands, commending the administration's intentions to limit greenhouse gas emissions and expand health care but objecting generally to actions that would strain small businesses and families. He has also accused McDonnell of focusing too heavily on federal issues, declaring in a recent debate that "I'm not running for Congress." And he skipped two health-care town halls hosted by Obama in Virginia in recent weeks, saying it would be inappropriate to mix campaigning with White House policy initiatives.
Supporters of the president say his efforts will pay off for Deeds. But Republicans are gambling that many of Virginia's middle-of-the road voters, who have backed Democrats in recent races, will be up for grabs as people grow more skeptical of Democratic leadership.
"The mood is becoming just as lousy for the Democrats as it has been for us the last couple of years," said J. Kenneth Klinge, a longtime Virginia GOP strategist. "It's evening the playing field."
According to a Gallup poll last week, about 52 percent of Americans approved of Obama's job as president, the lowest number of his tenure. That number rose to 56 percent in the most recent poll but was down from an average of 61 percent early last month and 69 percent immediately after he took office in January.
Stephanie Slater, 44, a neighbor of Cleland's who leans Republican, voted for Obama on the strength of his character and because of his positions on education, energy and health care. She recalled brimming with confidence after Obama's historic inaugural address.
"When he gave that speech that day, I was in awe. I was really inspired and thought, 'Wow, this is a guy who can do it,' " said Slater, a medical transcriptionist and mother of three.
But she has been disturbed by the large Wall Street bonuses that Obama doesn't seem to be able to halt and his inability to rein in credit card companies that raise rates even on those with good credit. Although she is trying to be patient, she said she is losing faith in the Democrats running Washington.
"Honestly, at this point, I have to say I'm worried. I haven't come across one person that seems to have been helped," she said. "If I don't see a spark, a light at the end of the tunnel, I may be voting Republican [for governor]."
Cleland, 39, is not so generous. Obama was supposed to help the everyman but instead he helped the banks and General Motors, she said. He was supposed to help homeowners keep their houses, but the primary federal effort in that direction, called Hope for Homeowners, has had limited success. She said she has grown uneasy as government spending has seemingly grown out of control.
Despite voting for Democrats in the past three statewide elections, she is undecided about the governor's race.
Her disappointment with Obama persists when she returns home to her neighborhood, Tartan Hills Village, outside Manassas, where about 400 houses are arranged in neat rows along landscaped lanes with a Scottish theme -- Bonnykelly, Woolen Kilt, Rob Roy Way. Cleland said that under Obama's leadership, little has improved for struggling residents in this upper-middle-class enclave.
As president of the Tartan Hills homeowner's association, she has heard from many neighbors seeking a reprieve from their $100-a-month homeowner's dues because of job losses, skyrocketing mortgage payments and other problems. But Cleland tries to explain that, without the money, the pool contract would lapse, the cul-de-sac circles overflowing with crape myrtles and azaleas would brown and wither, and the grass would eclipse the footpath.
The most stark evidence of Obama's failure, as Cleland sees it, is at her job at Long & Foster. Her workload consists of short sales, an arduous and often unsuccessful real estate maneuver that makes her feel less like a salesman and more like a social worker or lawyer.
Too often, she said, she has seen banks turn down perfectly good offers. Each time, she researches the bank to find out how much its executives have made in bonuses, and each time she calls the offices of Sen. James Webb (D) or Sen. Mark Warner (D) to ask them for help. Sometimes, she gets it; most times, she doesn't.
"Frankly, business has never been better," she said. "But these banks, they're given leeway that we as citizens are not."
She offers the example of Amy VanMeter, 29, whose story is familiar in this era of foreclosures. VanMeter, a cancer researcher at George Mason University, said she had impeccable credit until a couple of years ago, when she bought a house with an adjustable-rate mortgage at the urging of a broker.
The area wasn't ideal, but she tried to make the townhouse her own, VanMeter said while dropping by Cleland's office to sign some papers. She gutted the bathrooms and updated the kitchen. She brightened the living room with a coat of sage green paint. But despite her pleas to her lender to freeze her interest rate, the payments ballooned to $2,700 a month, double what a similar place would cost to rent and an impossibly high sum even with two roommates.
VanMeter, who stopped making her payments and moved out, is hoping to cut her losses by pursuing a short sale, but every day she edges closer to foreclosure -- a word that brings tears to her eyes.
Unlike Cleland, however, she cheers a little when Obama's name is mentioned. She blames her troubles on the bank and the broker, not on the president whom she helped elect in a groundswell of goodwill.
"He has a tough job ahead of him, but I think he has the passion to make it happen," she said of Obama. "It seems like he tried to make changes really quickly, and maybe that wasn't realistic. I think with time we'll see things change."
VanMeter has not tuned in to the governor's race, but she expects that she will vote for the Democrat.
For Cleland's part, however, she's seen enough of Obama's leadership to know that she is open to voting for a Republican this fall. "We really needed something different," she said, "but instead we are doing the same things over and over and over."