A year later, where did the hopes for Obama go?

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; 2:35 PM

A year ago, Barack Obama's true believers were euphoric. The huge and jubilant gathering in Chicago's Grant Park on election night 2008 gave way to almost 2 million people on the Mall for the president's inauguration.

He took office as the most popular incoming president in a generation. A movement had become a mandate of nearly 70 million votes. People hoped the new president would bring change to Washington, the hallmark claim of his historic candidacy.

Now, the mood through much of the nation seems restive, even sour. It is almost jarring to look at the photographs from Grant Park, to study those upturned beaming faces, many streaked with tears. Was that a movement? Or just a moment?

In a series of conversations before and after the State of the Union address, fervent Obama voters and former campaign staffers said they still are committed to the president and support his policies. But many are experiencing what generations of the politically passionate have learned over the years: Campaigning is fun; watching the person you've elected engage in the long slog of governing, less so. Some are working for his ideas. Some have struggled to find a way to engage. And for others, their passion was deep but brief. When Obama took office, they went back to their lives.

Nate Daab and Daniel Unser were in Grant Park on election night. They had graduated from high school during the primaries and gone off to art school in Chicago, where they met. Sometime in those first heady weeks at Columbia College, somebody got an Obama cardboard cutout at a movie rental store, and in that way, Obama came to live with them for a while. "We kept him there for three or four months," says Unser. "Everybody who came around wanted pictures taken with him."

The morning of Election Day, having voted for president for the first time, the two set out for Grant Park, Obama cutout in tow. They waited in line for eight hours, did interviews with TV crews from Spain, England, Australia, screamed with tens of thousands of others when the Obama family took the stage. It took them almost five hours to get home, and all along the way, strangers hugged and high-fived and cheered into the night.

"Pretty cool. Awesome energy," says Daab, 20. "There will never be anything like it."

Their euphoria spiked again during the inauguration. And then it was gone.

"It's kind of like Christmas Day," Unser, 19, says now. "You build it and you build it and it kinds of explodes and then you open what you got, and then it's done. It's over."

A drastic falloff

Marie-Ange Murekatete was in Grant Park, too, with her boyfriend and two girlfriends, all students at Loyola College, nestled on the ground like puppies. "We all wanted to be part of something bigger than ourselves," she says.

She had landed in Chicago several weeks before the election, thrilled to be out of Dayton, Ohio, where she cast an absentee ballot for Obama without believing he would win. "Everyone was crying and falling on the floor," she says. "It was so unified. I didn't think the falloff would be so drastic."

She always has known change can take time. She fled Rwanda with her mother and two brothers when she was 6 and came to America at 10. Her father had been killed, "a random act of violence because of the war," she says.

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