However, underpinning it all was a general sense of ennui not with him in particular — they all still loved him — but with politics in general: A sense that there was little point in investing energy in a political class or much faith in the electoral process that produces them.
“I never thought things could become more divided and there be more fighting,” says Ann Trinkel, echoing the frustrations of many. “But oh my gosh it’s just … gridlock. And I guess that’s what lessened the hopefulness for me and made me a bit more cynical, is all the money.”
It is not difficult to see why. The day I arrived in Roanoke in 2008, Congress voted against the bailout. It felt as though you could look out of your hotel window and see the nation’s economy implode. Wachovia Bank, the area’s fourth-largest employer whose name was emblazoned on top of the town’s only skyscraper had been laid low by bad debts and was the subject of an emergency rescue. In 2008 one in eight families in Roanoke lived below the poverty line and the town’s median income was three-quarters the national average.
Today one in five live in poverty and income is 70 percent of the national average. In the year before Obama was inaugurated, unemployment there leapt from 3.6 percent to 6.5 percent. Today it is 6.4 percent. The hemorrhaging has stopped, but for many a slow death continues. True, it could be worse. However, that was not the rally cry four years ago. Some of those who bought into the promise of change could be forgiven for demanding a refund.
Nationally, the overwhelming majority of Americans still believe the country is on the wrong track and a narrow majority believe Obama does not deserve a second term. In the four years between when he first declared his candidacy and the mid-terms in 2010, the median US family lost a generation of wealth. Wages are stagnant, unemployment high, social mobility slowing, poor white women are dying earlier than their mothers did and the gap between black and white is growing. A recent poll revealed that a slim majority of Americans define success as “not falling behind.”
“They talk about the rich and the middle class … they never talk about poverty. We’re living in total poverty. We have nothing right now,” Robin Barbour said four years ago in Roanoke.
Back then she was living with her partner, Fred Crews, in his mother’s basement and volunteering for the Obama campaign. Since Obama’s been president poverty has increased about 14 percent, but he has not delivered a single speech on poverty and mentioned the word just three times in all his state-of-the-union speeches.
Few, even among his own supporters, believe an Obama re-election will actually reverse these trends. They just think Republican candidate Mitt Romney will accelerate and exacerbate them. He is winning at present not because most people think he has done a great job (though many Obama supporters do), but because they think he has done the best job he could under the circumstances. The trouble is it is precisely those circumstances — gridlock, big money, polarization — that are turning them off and, with the Republicans set to retake the House and possibly the Senate, those circumstances are going to get worse.