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.

The guy she was with is an ex-boyfriend now, and one of the girls transferred to Ohio State. The four of them still talk sometimes, but not much. When Obama delivered his State of the Union speech, she watched, alone. On Facebook, she remains one of Obama's 7.2 million fans. She still gets lots of e-mail.

It now comes from Organizing for America, the campaign's online network, renamed, that helped deliver Obama to victory and was supposed to smoothly pivot toward pushing his agenda through Congress. It hasn't worked out that way. Election Day was black-and-white; it declared a winner. Inauguration Day was the beginning of gray; it brought the grind of governance, with its weird parliamentary maneuvers and bizarre negotiations.

The members of "the movement," in their loose confederation online, are still paying attention, says Abe Shimm, 22, a Claremont-McKenna College senior who took two summers and a semester off to organize for Obama in Iowa and Indiana. "When there is an actual campaign presence, to be told by an organizer, 'If you knock on these doors, you'll get these votes' offers you a tangible result. . . . It's far more difficult to express what a phone call is going to accomplish" if made to a member of Congress wobbly on the health-care overhaul plan.

Canvassing for the plan now in California, between classes, delivers none of the exhilaration and exhaustion Shimm felt on election night. Months of 20-hour days ended with him in Bloomington, pleading with college students to stay in line despite two-hour waits at the polls. The payoff came when Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana since Lyndon Johnson. In May, Shimm will be one semester away from a degree, but he's going to take off the fall to work on the midterm elections.

"To be an activist is a lifestyle," says Jenn Watts. She was Shimm's boss. An Irish Catholic girl of 22 with a Fordham education in philosophy and urban and African American studies, she started as a fundraiser in the District, then went into the field in Iowa and followed the primary trail -- Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin. She helped organize the national convention in Denver and went home to Indiana for the finale.

Then she crashed. "I was malnourished. I was delusional. I hadn't slept," she says. She moved to Washington and began competing with fellow staffers for White House jobs. "I saw some people who turned into different people. I felt naive about it. We were all one big progressive happy family, I thought, and now it was, oh, this was about you and your career?"

"I had left my boyfriend of two and a half years. I had to rebuild my friendships. I was totally MIA to my family . . . I had made all these sacrifices for two years, and the country is ready for change, and Obama is in the White House, but I had ceded everything to him to be an exhausted 26-year-old in debt."

She decided to work for the president's agenda from the outside, and now works at Repower America, a grass-roots network that lobbies for climate change legislation. She ticks off what she counts as progress: getting the bill out of committee, through the House, activating the old Indiana phone tree to nudge Sen. Evan Bayh. "I am actually so happy doing this," she says. "I know there is so much dissatisfaction, and people are questioning the ability of this president to create change. But I'm a true believer. He was never dishonest about this being easy. It's really hard."

Praying for America

On the Southside of Chicago, Joyce Dyson waits for something concrete to do for her president.

She spent election night in Grant Park with her friends Pat and Pam Conroy. The retired elementary school teacher never had worked to elect a candidate before, but Obama electrified her. She and the twins traveled the country, donated their cell minutes to make calls, slept on strangers' couches. The unity she found between blacks and whites, rich and poor, buoyed her through six states and swept her into the park that night.

"I remember I wanted to go to the March on Washington" in 1963, she says. "I had the big Angela Davis afro, but my parents wouldn't let me go. They were sharecroppers from Mississippi, and my father came to Chicago and worked in the steel mills. While they hoped for the dream, I don't think they understood or embraced it. And so 45 years later, I stood and watched that dream become a reality in Grant Park."

She volunteers as an ESOL teacher and now has two foster boys, 4 and 5. The Conroy twins go to rallies for health care, "but I don't have time for that," says Dyson, 58, "and there is nothing tangible for me to do right now." Instead, she gets together with friends to discuss politics, "and we pray. We pray on the issues, and we pray for this president and for America."

Daab and Unser, the college students, both have jobs, although it took Unser nearly a year to find one.

"You have to keep on hoping," says Daab, after hearing the president outline his agenda for Year 2. "Once he gets going, he'll be on a roll."

And the Obama cutout: Do they still have it?

"Yeah, he's still occupying a corner of the apartment living room. He sort of broke in half during election night," says Unser, "so he's a little worse for the wear. But he's still around."

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