By Theresa Vargas and Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; B01
Nicole Armstrong and John Nicholas had spoken to President Obama many times in their heads before he sat with them Monday afternoon on their Fairfax County patio next to a pitcher of lemonade.
For years, the couple said they'd held imaginary conversations with the president. Both of them read his books to better understand how he thinks. And now, here he was, inside the picket fence of their red brick home in Mantua, talking to them privately before addressing their backyard guests, a mix of politicians and owners of small businesses.
Here stood the president, listening to them, and only them, as they told their stories: How John, an engineering director at AOL, has survived several rounds of layoffs and worries what his family would do without his salary. How Nicole, a stay-at-home mom of their 9-year-old twins, took a job at a local preschool to give the family a little financial cushion. How they were worried but hopeful.
"You're starting to see little shoots of green grass," Nicole would later say about the economy.
With just 50 days to go before the midterm elections, Obama took his economic message to the Armstrong-Nicholas back yard, touting how his policies will create a more solid future.
After speaking to the couple for about 10 minutes, the president addressed an intimate, partisan audience of about 30 people spread among patio furniture, including wicker chairs and picnic benches. As the audience baked in the sun, the president said he would step out of the shade in solidarity.
"I have never been more confident about the future of our economy, if we stay on track and we deal with some of these longstanding problems that we haven't dealt with in decades," Obama said. "If we do those things, there's no reason we can't succeed."
At the event, which Republicans derided as a "garden party," Obama touted his 19-month record, including overhauls in health-care and financial regulation. Over the past week, at large rallies and during a rare news conference, Obama has stepped up his public focus on the economy, hammering Republicans for obstructing his agenda.
Larry Poltavtsev, chief executive of Target Labs, a green-information technology firm based in Vienna with 94 employees, asked about easing lending for small businesses, a key priority for the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress. The administration's bill, which has passed the House, would create a $30 billion fund for community banks to extend credit and offer $12 billion in tax breaks. Obama has accused Republicans of holding the bill hostage.
"You hear some of my friends on the Republican side complaining that we'd get more business investment if we had more certainty, where here is an example where we can get some certainty right away," the president said. "Pass this bill; I will sign it into law the day after it is passed or the day it is passed, and then right away I think a lot of small businesses around the country will feel more comfortable about hiring and making investments."
Afterward, Poltavtsev, who keeps an Obama bumper sticker on his car, said he was more than satisfied with the answer.
"He really understands the needs of small businesses," he said.
This area, part of the nation's most affluent congressional district, went heavily for Obama in 2008, yet freshman Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who attended the backyard session and got several shout-outs from Obama, is in a tight rematch against "tea party"-backed Republican Keith S. Fimian.
Connolly has said that he backs the temporary extension of all tax cuts.
"The recovery is too fragile; it can't take a jolt," he said after the president left the event. "Right now, it's the wrong time for us to be raising taxes."
Obama took seven questions in the course of an hour, including one from John Nicholas. While he has seen employees at AOL drop from 20,000 to fewer than 5,000, Nicholas asked about stem cell research, which he said is a personal concern because he suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of a fall and is in a wheelchair.
Nicole Armstrong is of mixed minds about going back to work.
"Kids don't outgrow needing a parent around," she said. But although she thought a lot about what to say to Obama, in the end, she kept it to a simple "thank you."
"It's a tough time, no doubt," she said later. "But I genuinely do not believe he was the cause, and he's earnestly trying to find a moderate pathway through the mess."
Before Obama left, passing a street where dozens of Armstrong and Nicholas's neighbors stood waving signs and shouting his name, the president gave one more private moment to the family. He invited the couple's children, Trevor and Olivia, into his limousine and let Trevor make a phone call.
Trevor said he called his mom's cellphone, but, of course, she didn't answer.