Just before Halloween 2008, while out for a walk, I noticed that on the front porch of a nearby house sat a row of five pumpkins, each carved with one letter of Barack Obama’s last name. The election was, at that point, a week away, and I was charmed by this seasonal display of Democratic support. Then I rounded the corner and spotted the exact same arrangement: a row of five pumpkins, each carved with one letter of Obama’s last name. OK, so maybe not quite as original as I’d thought but still encouraging, at least for a liberal like me living in a swing state—my neighborhood, after all, is not in Brooklyn or Berkeley but in suburban St. Louis, Mo., a state that ultimately, by a margin of 0.1 percent, didn’t go for Obama in ‘08.
This Halloween, it was clear that if I wanted to see a row of jack-o’-bamas, I’d need to carve them myself. Where once it was impossible not to trip over Obama enthusiasm, much of it shown by people not usually all that invested in politics and in ways that went well beyond bumper stickers or pins (remember the trend of young voters unofficially changing their middle names to Hussein?), these days, not only are Tea Partiers boiling over with fury at Obama, but even Obama campaign stalwarts Shepard Fairey of the Hope poster and YouTube sensation Obama Girl are feeling lukewarm about our president: Obama Girl, aka Amber Lee Ettinger, told the New York Post in January she’d give Obama a B- grade: “In my opinion, I feel like he should be focusing a lot more on jobs and the economy.”
But my own feelings haven’t changed at all. Two years after voting for him, I’m just as exhilarated as Oprah Winfrey was in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008. You might say, to borrow the accusation frequently leveled at the 2008 media, that I’ve remained in the tank for Obama. The only problem is that, currently, I seem to be in the tank by myself. Earlier this fall, when even NPR hosts were making jokes that could have been borrowed from Rush Limbaugh—the teaser for a recent episode of Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! imagined that one of the “inspiring” quotations in the new Oval Office carpet was, “At least your daughters still like you … probably”—I felt the unmistakable loneliness of being the last one left at a formerly hopping party.
Honestly, though, I’m surprised that so many people have turned against the president. Obviously, if you’ve lost your job, life is tough, but did voters really believe the country was going to quickly and dramatically reverse course once he was elected? So he hasn’t yet made good on every campaign promise—isn’t this like being shocked that you didn’t lose as much weight doing Jenny Craig as Valerie Bertinelli did, or that your new memory-foam mattress didn’t magically cure your insomnia?
It’s not that I can’t understand voters’ frustration with, for example, the fact that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is still open. So Obama is an imperfect president—who wouldn’t be? During the almost two years he’s been in office, I (apparently alone among sentient voters) don’t think he’s made any major missteps: As far as I can tell, the economic stimulus package might not have been perfect, but it prevented something bad from being even worse. Health care reform will offer better coverage—or coverage, period—to millions of Americans, including children and those with pre-existing conditions. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is providing billions of dollars to improve education and infrastructure. And, hell, I have no idea what Obama could have done differently with the oil spill, with the possible exception of not succumbing to political pressure and so-called optics by making Sasha go swimming with him off the coast of Florida.
So he hasn’t yet gotten Congress to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell”—at least he’s explicitly assured us he wants to, and he recently indicated his view on gay marriage could “evolve.” And, yes, it did give me pause in December 2009 when he announced that he was sending more troops to Afghanistan, but here’s the thing: Although he was criticized for taking too long to decide on that plan, I was reassured by his aversion to acting hastily. In general, when I hear the criticisms of Obama—that he’s professorial or wonky or emotionally restrained, that he’s willing to listen to various points of view, that he likes arugula—I often think, wait, those are supposed to be insults?
But, my fellow Americans, how quickly we forget! After an excruciating eight years of Bush, the thrill still hasn’t worn off for me of once again having an intellectually nimble president, not to mention one who doesn’t pride himself on going with his gut when it comes to foreign policy. Whenever I watched Bush speak extemporaneously, I’d feel alternately embarrassed by and for him. I’d be tempted to cover my eyes, as if watching a clumsy figure skater botching double Lutz jumps. And whenever I interacted with someone from another country, I’d feel compelled to mention that I hadn’t voted for Bush.
But when I see Obama on television, I’m unfailingly struck by his intelligence and charisma, by his easygoing humor, by the magnificence of his megawatt smile. He just makes me proud, and perhaps this is where I should admit that if there are two categories of Obama critics—conservatives who never liked the guy and have in some cases become unhinged since he was elected, and centrists or Democrats who voted for him but now feel let down—I suspect that, in the visceral nature of my response to our president, I have more in common with the unhinged nut jobs. By this I mean that my Obama admiration is a kind of emotional inverse of the right-wing Obama antipathy: I can pretend it’s all about policy, but in truth, it’s much more personal. Where his detractors dislike him because of, say, that Muslim vibe he gives off, I like him for similarly nebulous, albeit slightly more factual reasons.
I like that he’s married to—and seemingly still quite taken with—a strong, opinionated, gorgeous woman, and that he has two ridiculously cute daughters. I like his mind-bendingly multicultural extended family. I like that in a campaign interview in Glamour magazine, he could fluently and unabashedly talk about Pap smears. I thought that the beer summit of 2009 was delightful. I was even excited when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, not realizing until pundits explained otherwise that I was supposed to be aghast at its prematurity. And I wasn’t a bit offended by Obama’s alleged 2008 debate gaffe—a line the otherwise irreproachable Frank Rich mentioned yet again in a column as recently as September—in remarking to Hillary Clinton, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” Oh, and did I mention that I actually voted for Hillary in Missouri’s Democratic primary? I was one of those Democrats who thought it’d be nice to have an entrée of eight years of Hillary, with Obama as a vice-presidential side, followed by eight years of a more seasoned Obama as the main course. I was always an Obama admirer, but maybe the fact that I was initially rooting for Hillary has prevented me from feeling the disappointment in his presidency expressed by certain Obamamaniacs. So swoony and ardent was their Obama love during the campaign that it couldn’t be sustained; my more measured affection, by contrast, has grown over time.
At this point, I love Obama so much that I recently thought if it were 1961, I’d probably display a bust of him in my living room. Then I realized I’m already displaying the 2010 equivalent: On my living room wall, I have a framed version of that famous November 2008 New Yorker cover of the O moon over the Lincoln Memorial. Meanwhile, on my desk, I keep a printed-out photo I first saw on the Huffington Post in May 2009, of Obama in the Oval Office, bending over so a little African-American boy could rub his head. The boy, it turns out, was the child of a White House staffer, and the reason Obama was bending was, according to the caption in the White House’s Flickr account, “The youngster wanted to see if the President’s haircut felt like his own.”
I don’t care if it’s good PR—the picture still practically brings tears to my eyes. It reminds me of the sense of excitement and possibility I felt in November 2008, as if in electing Obama, we Americans were acting as our best, smartest, least racist selves, as if there really was change we could believe in. And, OK, so it’s been a long two years since then, and for a lot of people it’s been an undeniably hard two years. But I’m just not convinced that’s Obama’s fault.
I’m also not convinced, my own hyperbolic tendencies aside, that I’m really the last Obama devotee standing. When I ask around, I find that the people who are disappointed in Obama aren’t as disappointed as the media would have us believe, and that many aren’t disappointed at all. In fact, some acquaintances have told me that they, too, feel surprised by the assumption that the Obama backlash is universal. Sure, a lot of the people I know are like me—Whole Foods shoppers, NPR listeners, Slate readers and writers—but I do live in a state where I’d be unable to avoid voters of varying political persuasions even if I wanted to.
During the years of George W. Bush’s presidency, a popular magnet among my Democratic friends featured a serious photo of Bill Clinton, his hands clasped. “COME BACK BILL,” the punctuation-free text read. “ALL IS FORGIVEN.” My fear is that if Democrats continue to convince one another, and swing voters, of our president’s failures and shortcomings, a similar Obama magnet might surge in popularity as soon as 2013—during a Mitt Romney administration, or a Mike Huckabee administration, or, God forbid, a Sarah Palin administration.
But even if my worst political nightmare comes to pass, I know I will never buy that magnet. After all, I’ve never thought there’s anything for which to forgive Obama.