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As Obama's popularity drops, so do sales of his merchandise

Obama-friendly merchandise has seen a decrease in sales, but new products taunting him are coming on the market and are hot sellers in Washington, D.C.
By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Not that long ago, President Obama was more than a president wading through two wars and a bad economy. He was Superman, clutching a basketball in mid-air and about to slam-dunk, on a sparkly T-shirt available in Union Station for $14.99.

A medallion of his face was airbrushed onto T-shirts, swinging on a gold chain next to another medallion with the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. His family portrait was emblazoned on not-quite-microwave-safe dinner plates, and his essence was somehow captured for a cologne. (Of course, the same was done with Michelle Obama for women.)

He was everywhere. In the worst of the recession, Obama was creating jobs and spurring consumer activity -- and all it required were vendors and Web sites hawking stuff that could somehow be tangential to him and his moment in history.

But even an industry that might have seemed recession-proof apparently can't survive the doldrums that hit the president near the midterm elections.

Two years into his presidency, Obama's approval ratings have fallen like those of most of his predecessors, who tended to dip in the polls about halfway through a term. Then again, most presidents aren't an industry unto themselves. The people who have made bank despite a bad economy are certainly taking notice.

Souvenir vendors in Washington say once-thriving sales of the garish merchandise fawning over the president are nowhere near what they were. Sales peaked at the height of Obamamania, between the election and the inauguration, but vendors said that Obama paraphernalia still moved from their shelves through much of 2009.

Freddy Vinoya, of Souvenir World in the District, said he has seen sales, and shoppers' interest, taper off since October, when the store opened.

In Union Station, the souvenir shop once dubbed the Obama Store because of its mostly Obama-related selection (save for the Michael Jackson memorabilia of the same vein that popped up after his death) has closed. A jewelry-repair shop stands in its place near the food court.

"That moment in history is gone," said Molly Andolina, a professor of political science at DePaul University, in the president's adopted home town of Chicago. "You're going to only see the enthusiasts" continue to buy, she said.

Using merchandise sales as a measure of public opinion is anything but definitive. The downward trend in sales could simply mean that the market has been exhausted: How many Obama shirts can one person own, anyway?

The trend in sales, however, does mirror the trend in the president's popularity.

"The Democratic base is less excited than the Republican base," Andolina said. "Obama has lost the enthusiasm." She added: "It's very typical to be doing poorly at this point."

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