By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 6:32 PM
By the time I called her, Velma Hart was surprised at how her words had been dissected and analyzed. Hart is the middle-aged, middle-class Maryland woman who asked President Obama to reassure her that he remained the crusader for change she had voted for.
"The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family," she told the president last week during a town hall meeting in Washington. "My husband and I joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives. But quite frankly, it's starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we're headed again. And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality?"
Hart, who was a U.S. Army Reservist for almost a decade, gave voice to the frustrations of everyday Americans.
But some saw more than frustration.
When we talked, Hart said she was amazed at the attention she's getting for her remarks, which have overshadowed anything Obama said during the forum. She said her comments and question, which were meant to elicit comforting words from Obama, have become political fodder and have been misconstrued as proof that Obama's die-hard supporters were prepared to abandon him - and do what? Become tea partiers?
"I think he has made progress," she told me. "I just thought by now the progress would be more evident for the man-on-the-street level."
By her own account, Hart's personal finances are in pretty good shape, at least when compared with the almost 44âmillion people living in poverty. She has a well-paying job s as the chief financial officer for AmVets, a nonprofit Maryland-based veteran services organization. Her husband is employed. She can afford to send two children to private school. She says she and her husband have managed their money well.
Despite the fact that during the broadcast Hart said she worried that soon her family might be forced to dine regularly on hot dogs and beans, she didn't mean that literally. She says she made that statement to add levity to a discussion that isn't funny: the state of our economy.
"It was symbolic," she said. "I'm a lot more fortunate than others."
It is the possibility of deep financial trouble that is worrying Hart. It's the higher cost of gas, groceries and other living expenses that is making her anxious. It's the fact that her home has lost value. It's her having to pull back from discretionary spending and shopping so her daughters can stay in private school that makes her feel less well-off. Hart is concerned about the people she knows who have lost their jobs.
In his answer to Hart, Obama ticked off a list of financial reforms dealing with student loans, health care, credit cards and mortgages. He said he understood her frustrations.
"I'm not saying once in a while you don't want to get a new pair of shoes," Obama joked.
Hart was still not feeling it. And the "it" is finding relief from her financial fears.
But when I pressed her, Hart says what really disappoints her is that the change Obama promised hasn't come fast enough.
"I was operating off expectations he set during the campaign trail," Hart said. "I thought there was something special and secret he knew that would make things operate differently."
I asked Hart: "Are your expectations unrealistic?"
"Absolutely," she said. "It took decades to get here. He's only been in office for two years. But I guess I started to believe, on some small level, that he had a magic wand. Maybe in that respect my question was somewhat unfair."
Hart isn't a symbol of fed-up Obama supporters. She's a stand-in for people who are doing okay financially but who are still uneasy.
So what did she want to hear from the president?
"I wanted him to say, 'No, this is not your new reality.' I wanted him to say, 'I don't know what the new reality is. We are still working through a lot of stuff. This is a transitional period. It is going to be hard now. There is light at the end of the tunnel. We are going to get to the light, but it's going to take some time. Right now, you are expecting too much from me.'â"
Hart jokes: "If he had said that, I would have run up and hugged him and run the risk of being shot by the Secret Service."
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