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Gary Younge

Obama draws a big crowd at a rally in Ohio this week but many of his supporters are conflicted over what he has failed to accomplish in the last four years. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
The struggle for Obama's voters: 'I just wish he could have been better'

The first time I met Susan Aylward, in 2004, she had just emerged from the opening night of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in Akron, Ohio, and was shooing away John Kerry supporters who wanted to give her a sticker. She intended to vote for him and she even campaigned for him, but she had no intention of bragging about it. "People don't love Kerry because they're not sure what he stands for," she said. "But I'm going to vote for him because he's not Bush."

Four years later she was positively excited at the prospect of an Obama presidency. "I had high hopes," she says. "After having to live for 8 years through Iraq and all of that stuff I really wanted Obama to be the counterpoint to that. He was a brilliant speaker. Pretty much everything about him made you hopeful. He reminded me of JFK."

When we met at her house for breakfast just a week before the 2008 election she was eager to contain her excitement. "After the last two times I just don't want to jinx it," she said. "Everything looks good. But I won't believe it until it actually happens." When he won she made her two-year-old granddaughter, who's mixed race, sit with her and watch the festivities. "We kept saying: 'It's history, Sasha'. We wanted her to be able to say she saw it that day, even if she didn't really know what she was seeing."

This time around she feels deflated. You can hear it in her voice as she works through her mixed emotions. It's almost as though she cast a vote for Barack Obama and got Kerry instead. "It's not going to change my vote," she says. "But I just wish he could have been better. I don't even know how exactly. If you're going to be president then I guess you obviously want to be in the history books. So what does he want to be in the history books for? I don't quite know the answer to that yet."

There is a peculiar quality to the disappointment among Democrats when it comes to talk of Obama's first term. Most feel it but few will own it. Some project it, others deflect it. Many are in denial, some are in mourning. They struggle with it, qualify it, rationalise it, calibrate it and question it.

Did he raise expectations too high or were unreasonable expectations imposed upon him? Was he too compliant with the Republican Congress or was he trying to fulfill his promise to be more consensual? They wanted more and they're not sure whether their aspirations were reasonable, feasible, justified or deluded. They wish the disappointment wasn't there. And they can't avoid it.

For this is one emotional toll that could have electoral consequences. In a tight race in which there are few undecideds both sides have to galvanise their bases. The Obama campaign has tried trying to manage it, lest the disappointment depress enthusiasm and harm. In Charlotte Obama told the convention: "While I'm proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said: "I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go."

Republicans are keen to leverage it, in the hope that with a show of empathy they can win over some precious waverers. Mitt Romney spoke over the heads of his convention-goers to disaffected Obama supporters: "You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him." Now they are running ads, mostly featuring women, to appeal to swing voters. "I'm disappointed in Barack Obama as my president," says Melanie McNamara, who voted for him in 2008. "He promised to bring us all together so we could prosper, and I don't see the prospering."

Given the excitement at Obama's election some measure of disappointment was inevitable. The combination of both the historic nature of both his candidacy and the economic crisis during which it emerged virtually ensured it. The first black president elected during the steepest downturn since the Great Depression set the nation on contradictory paths. In Harlem people were dancing in the street even as, at the other end of Manhattan, Wall Street was sending the economy into free fall. The month he was elected – two months before he took office – he had a 61% approval rating while only one in six believed the country was heading in the right direction, and it was unlikely one person could correct the course of a tanker the size of the US economy.

 One of Obama
One of Obama's first acts in January 2009 was to sign an executive order closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. It is still open. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

After rereading The God That Failed, in which six ex-Marxists voice their disaffection with communism, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said questioned the very premise in the title. "Why as an intellectual did you believe in a god anyway? And besides, who gave you the right to imagine that your early belief and later disenchantment were so important?" One might say the same of some Obama supporters whose investment in him was rooted in an unreasonable belief that the presidency endowed Obama with superhuman powers. "This is not some academic exercise," Obama told supporters in Philadelphia in 2010. "Don't compare us to the Almighty; compare us to the alternative."

That's why Susan believes people must, to some extent, take responsibility for their disappointment. "That's what we're taught to believe from an early age," she says. "That one man should be able to fix everything. Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Ronald Reagan – history's told as though it were all down to them. The world is way too complex for that, and we know that but we still have those expectations that we were raised with."

And while some of the expectations may have been unreasonable some were just plain unfounded. On election night in 2008 I watched the result come in the President's Lounge on the South Side of Chicago. As Obama was announced the winner a woman at the bar started cheering. "My man's in Afghanistan. He's coming home." Quite why she thought that wasn't clear. But it wasn't true. Afghanistan was the one war Obama had pledged to continue and which he would eventually escalate. Where she'd got the impression otherwise is not clear. But her disappointment was guaranteed and had little to do with him.

Indeed one of the sources of disappointment, particularly from abroad, is that people mistook the fact that his election marked a radical departure from the previous eight years as an indication that he was a radical. He wasn't. His record both as a state senator and on the national level, where he voted with Hilary Clinton 90% of the time, was of a centrist Democrat. Unlike black presidential candidates of the past, who were unlikely to get white support, he was not standing to advance a broader cause but to get elected. "The civil rights generation saw politics as the next step in the struggle for civil rights," said Salim Muwakkil, a Chicago-based journalist who has known Obama for many years. "Their aim was to get their agenda taken up by whoever won. But this new generation do not conceive politics as the next step, but just as what it is – politics. Their aim is to win."

But the fact that he didn't stand on a radical platform doesn't mean people were deluded to imagine that he would govern as a radical. In January 2007 I saw him speak at George Mason University to a 1,000-plus crowd where he quoted Martin Luther King: "The arc of justice is long but bends towards justice." He promised his presidency would be transformative and in campaign speeches he invoked abolitionists, suffragettes and labour activists and then Will.I.Am set it to song. "Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change," he said. "We have been asked to pause for a reality check. We have been warned against offering people of this nation false hope." One could be forgiven for thinking he wasn't just talking about marginal tax rates and cap and trade.

Such were the nature of the aspirations and potential disappointments, both projected onto him and which he projected himself, before he even took office. Then there is his record. Pretty much everybody has their pet disappointment here: a specific thing they'd wanted to see but haven't or, conversely, wished he hadn't done. Most frequently mentioned are failing to close Guantanamo Bay, political polarisation, drone attacks, comprehensive immigration reform, kill lists and failing to oversee stronger regulation of the financial sector. It is intriguing how many Obama loyalists explain these problems away with a mixture of psychoanalysis and Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns".

"I know he's smart. I know he's caring," says Bobbi Watson, who was with Susan the night I met her outside the cinema eight years ago. "But when I think about the drone attacks, which trouble me, I think he's making decisions on the basis of information that I couldn't possibly know."

Many redirect their disappointment in politics in general, pointing to the Republican stonewalling in Congress. "I never thought things could become more divided, and there be more fighting," said Ann Trinkel, who I met in Roanoke recently. "But oh my gosh it's just … gridlock. And I guess that's what sort of lessened the hopefulness for me, and made me a bit more cynical, is all the money." It is certainly true that in a system where seats are openly gerrymandered, 40% in the upper house can block almost anything, lobbyists are everywhere and you need vast sums of money to get elected there is a limit to how much progressive change one can really expect. Susan's husband, Michael who backed Obama last time, isn't voting. He's had enough of all of them.

Some are just in denial. One person said to me when I raised the escalation in Afghanistan: "You don't know what's in his heart."

 The enthusiasm of Obama supporters – so prevalent on election night in 2008 – has waned in the last four years. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
The enthusiasm of Obama supporters – so prevalent on election night in 2008 – has waned in the last four years. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

"True," I replied. "Only his cardiologist can know that. But that knowledge would make little difference to the people of Afghanistan."

Each disappointment can be argued out or argued away, dismissed by loyalists, insisted upon by the disaffected, explained by circumstance or excused at will. In any case, every president has these. So long as they are not full on reversals – as when George Bush senior said: "Read my lips: no new taxes" and then put up taxes – then they are rarely fatal. Obama hasn't opened another Guantanamo Bay facility, and it is understood that presidents don't get everything done that they promise to do.

But that does not mean they are not grounds for disappointment. Obama ran claiming he was going to change the way Washington operated, and there was much he could not control. But it was his choice to leave in place George W Bush's secretary of defence and to draft of Bill Clinton's former treasury secretary, Larry Summers, to guide his economic policy. With those appointments there's only so much 'change' one can reasonably expect. Moreover, if someone who says: "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that," and promises it'll be closed within a year and it's still open, then by any measure people are entitled to feel let down.

But left there all of these particular disappointments would have remained just that – particular letdowns that disillusioned discrete groups of people. What morphed them into a broader narrative of disappointment was the one thing over was the key issue of the economy over which he had limited power – and gridlock in Congress.

In September 2010 he was challenged at a town hall meeting by a black woman, Velma Hart, who said: "I'm exhausted. 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."

With poverty rising, unemployment stubbornly high and wages still stagnant the economy was both a material problem in itself – people have been struggling to make ends meet – and became an emblem for a broader disaffection. The country was stalled. And whatever it was they were expecting from his presidency it wasn't this. They wanted more and, many believe, he promised more.

Jodie Delamatre has no time for this. She is no stranger to disappointment. I followed Jodie around on election day in 2004 as she knocked on doors to get out the vote. I saw her in the polling booth press her pin down hard to avoid through the punch card for Kerry to avoid any Florida-like shenanigans. "I've got to make sure it counts," she said. "I don't want to leave anything to chance." That night when the polls closed they thought they'd squeaked a victory in Ohio and therefore the nation. When I called her the next morning she was devastated.

This time around she wished Obama had done more about the banks. But she thinks those who dwell on their disappointments are self-indulgent. "People ask what has he done and I think well what did you do? You can't just have things given to you all the time. You have to go out and get them. And look at the things he has done. In four years he's introduced healthcare reform, stabilised the economy, stopped a war, killed Bin Laden, saved the auto industry – give me a break." When Obama was inaugurated unemployment in Summit County, where Akron sits, was 8.8%; today it is 6.5%. In 2009 the poverty rate is 14.9; today it is 13.8%.

It is true that if you ask most people what they thought would happen their hopes are as heartfelt as they are vague. "I definitely think it's about me," says Susan. "I hoped he would give us a vision of where we were going. Just one big idea. But it doesn't seem as though he has one. I did hope that he would be that person who would pull it off. Because otherwise it seems like there's no good way out."

Obama's election forced a reckoning between what a large number of Americans wanted to happen and what was possible to achieve through the American polity as it stands. The hard truth is that with few exceptions the most transformational advances in US political history have their origins either in the streets or the courts – not the ballot box.

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