'Exhausted' Obama questioner has her headline moments

By Krissah Thompson
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 10:52 PM

Velma Hart's exhaustion has become exhilaration.

She had spent most of the year telling friends that she was going to write to President Obama. "I'm going to write a letter to the president and tell him what I'm thinking," she would say. "I'm going to write a letter."

She never got around to it.

So, when the Upper Marlboro resident was chosen to sit in on a town hall meeting Obama held this week with businesspeople, friends told her: Finally, you can tell him what you have to say in person.

She did on Monday during the CNBC town hall, declaring to the president that she was "exhausted of defending" him.

Since then, she has been a regular on broadcast and cable networks as the latest every-person to become an of-the-moment political figure and the personification of the political problem Obama faces. In 2008, Hart was "fired up and ready to go," one of many who took up the Obama campaign's chant. In 2010, she is tired.

Hart spent just a few minutes deciding how she would ask her question, which was also a testimonial. When the microphone was passed, the words her friends had heard over and over spilled out.

Hart said: "I've been told that I voted for a man who said he's going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet. . . . I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

Her words have been featured on cable news shows and have made bold headlines. Her face was plastered across the cover of the New York Post with this headline: "BETRAYED: Bam fan is now frank-ly fed up." (Hart said "betrayed" went too far.)

"I've been able to, in a meaningful way for the first time in what I think is a long time, talk about the issues that really matter to me as a consumer and an American," Hart said from her office in Lanham, where she is chief financial officer of AmVets, a veterans service organization. "When this opportunity came along, I said, well, this must be divine intervention."

She was a vocal Obama supporter during the campaign, putting up signs at her home and wearing every Obama button she could find. She stayed late nights at the office, trying to convince her co-workers that he was a different kind of leader.

"I talked him up," Hart said. "I was thinking that the people who were against him and didn't believe in his agenda were completely insane. I was trying to win them over."

She went to her polling place at 3 a.m. to wait in line, and she became emotional watching the votes roll in on the way to Obama's victory.

This year, Hart's 70-something mother is contemplating going back to work because her retirement savings have been hit so hard by the recession. Hart has delayed buying a new car, despite problems with the old ones. Friends who have been laid off are still out of work. The older of her two teenage girls is headed to college next year.

Those were the things she wanted to put in her letter, the things she wanted to say to Obama.

"What I was trying to do was to be direct and clear but not disrespectful. That was the challenge because it is a hard job, and he's having impossible barriers to success," she said. "There's just no denying that."

Conservative Web sites have been quoting Hart to support the argument that even Obama's supporters are sick of him. Liberal Web sites spin her words in another direction, as evidence of the disillusionment among those who want the administration's policies to be bigger and bolder.

Obama's efforts to relate to Hart and the other businesspeople chosen to question him were panned by op-ed pages and pundits, who called him the "not-so-great" communicator and found his responses flat.

Hart became the standout. She set the tone, sounding frustrated and anxious, even as she said she supported Obama's policies and was honored to be standing before him. She concluded: "Quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality?"

Obama said he understood her frustration and spoke about things his administration has done to make college loans more affordable, to prevent insurance companies from denying health coverage to children with preexisting conditions, to prevent credit card companies from ripping off customers.

"My goal here is not to try to convince you that everything is where it needs to be," Obama said. "It's not. That's why I ran for president. But what I am saying is . . . that we're moving in the right direction."

Hart nodded and took her seat. She knew all of those things. What she was hoping for was an answer that would wow and inspire her, just as Obama did in 2008. Some of her expectations during that campaign might have been a little unrealistic, she said.

"There was no magic potion," she said Wednesday. "But we were so excited that someone thought they had a different plan about how to manage Washington."

Hart's question about her "new reality" made its way into the president's speech Monday night at a Democratic National Committee dinner in Philadelphia.

He tried to inspire the party's big-money supporters by spelling out the questions he is trying to answer: "How are we going to set a foundation for long-term, sustained economic growth? How can we make sure that the growing middle class that is at the heart of a healthy economy, that that was a reality again for people all across this country?"

The irony, Hart said, is that she still believes that Obama can do something about her reality. "It's just all about execution, and he's having a tough time doing that."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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