One year ago, Roey Thorpe flew from Portland to Washington, D.C., to watch Barack Obama take office as president on Jan. 20, 2009.
A longtime pro-choice activist and former director of the gay-rights group Basic Rights Oregon, Thorpe backed Obama early and avidly as a member of his National LGBT Steering and Policy Committee.
Today, Thorpe is still thoroughly behind Obama. But after a year of incremental progress on the economy, heavy compromises on healthcare reform and escalation of the war in Afghanistan, Thorpe hears from Democrats who are losing hope.
“I see people saying, ‘Obama is a disappointment, Obama sucks,’” Thorpe says. “I’m not saying I’m proud of every single one of his actions. But in my mind he’s still far and away the best choice.”
The truth, of course, is that no president could live up to the hope and expectations Democrats piled onto Obama during the campaign.
Now that the party’s over, the hangover has set in. Skepticism about Obama is growing even in Oregon.
For some, the comedown from a year ago is visceral.
“Deep disappointment is how I would put it,” says John Bradach, a Portland lawyer and antiwar activist who volunteered for the Obama campaign. “He’s missed the opportunity to change the country the way he said he would.”
Obama took office promising to transform American politics. But a year into his first term, we’re still waiting for our change.
The president’s supporters have a long list of caveats explaining Obama’s uneven progress so far—including the mess he inherited, the limits of presidential power, the sheer scope of his agenda and the short 12-month time frame.
In short, they point out Obama is a man—not the superhuman some of his followers took him for. But there’s political danger in raising expectations as high as Obama did during the campaign. Now our patience is wearing thin. In Oregon, the president’s approval rating slipped to 50 percent last month, down from 68 percent when he took office a year ago, according to polls by SurveyUSA.
That’s slightly lower than the national average, which shows Obama enjoying 51 percent support today compared with 69 percent when he took office, according to Gallup polls.
To see how Oregon’s Obama obsession is holding up a year after his inaugural bash, we interviewed five of his most die-hard Portland supporters.
Some have serious doubts about the way Obama has handled the issues most important to them. But to varying degrees, each still has faith that Obama can become the president they hoped to see when he took office. Perhaps he can.
Job: U.S. Representative
During the campaign: Obama’s most prominent Oregon supporter
No Oregonian invested more political capital in Obama’s 2008 campaign than Earl Blumenauer. The seven-term Democratic congressman from Portland bucked U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and risked the wrath of the Clintons when he endorsed Obama early in the primary race at a March 21 rally in Memorial Coliseum.
Today, despite a public disagreement with Obama over the troop surge in Afghanistan, Blumenauer insists he picked the right candidate.
You must know from talking to Portlanders that there’s a palpable letdown after Obama’s first year in office.
How do you tell them we’re on the right track?
Well, part of it is just for people to review what happened. I mean, 15 months ago, I was in meetings with very serious people who believed that there would be a global financial meltdown. Fifteen months ago, the United States was on the outside looking in on global climate talks. We had continuing problems with both Afghanistan and Iraq, and our standing in the world was, frankly, pretty negative. This is part of what I do, is just share sort of a checklist, asking for people to remember what it was like.
But what’s he accomplished to reverse that?
Reflect on what has happened in the first 50 weeks in office. Within days there was legislation passed for children’s health [and] employment equity. We had climate legislation passed for the first time in history. The economic stimulus which, you know, there was a lot of flak for. What would our state look like if we hadn’t got that [money]? We would have lost tens of thousands of more jobs.
How would you grade Washington under Obama?
What you’re talking about for me is a year of the most intense activity I’ve ever had. Extraordinarily high expectations—not just expectations, but a sense of urgency. And we ended up with having reality set in. We ended up with legislation that were B-minuses and C-pluses.
The House climate legislation was a B—not as good as it could’ve been. We’re probably moving toward a C-plus in the healthcare arena.
That’s being gracious.
Well, I’m going to have over 1,000 people that I represent who are going to go bankrupt from healthcare costs this year, and most of them have insurance. I’ve been extraordinarily frustrated at how Medicare is going over the cliff. Compared to the problems we face now, and the real-life stories that I get regularly, I’ll take a C-plus.
How often have you met with the president over the past year?
We had three policy conversations on the economy, on health care. I’ve had three or four social, lower-key things.
Not one-on-one, no. We’ve had a couple of conversations as part of larger things, but I’ve been part of meetings where I’ve been able to make points about infrastructure, about health care.
Have you ever said, “Mr. President, you’re headed in the wrong direction”?
One area where there is a modest disagreement that I had with the administration was the infrastructure priority. I have lobbied him and other cabinet secretaries and people in the administration to put a higher priority on transportation and infrastructure, because I think the economy desperately needs it.
Do you think Obama was too soft on the Republicans?
I don’t think anybody was prepared for the Republican Party to go into 100 percent opposition to everything.
How could the administration have handled it better?
I think they were a little too accommodating early on in terms of the pursuit of elusive Republican votes at the expense of a weaker program, and the economic recovery is one of them. I think if they had to do it over, they would have had a stronger program, and not work so hard to try and get one or two Republican votes. The country would be better off, and I think they would have been better served. That said, I think at some level, the public understands that they tried.
Job: Staffer for Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen and co-editor of the liberal blog BlueOregon
During the campaign: Volunteer for Obama
Collymore is part of the demographic credited with propelling Obama to victory: young, educated and highly motivated by the candidate’s charisma. A 32-year-old pro-choice activist who’s also current in the gay-rights movement and the Democratic Party, Collymore cites Obama as an inspiration for her unsuccessful bid to fill vacancies in the Oregon Legislature last fall.
Collymore can’t abide those who have turned on Obama so soon.
You’re still behind Obama?
I love him. I do. My eyes still water when I see him on a magazine cover. Which is really embarrassing when you’re at the store.
Not everyone is still thrilled with him.
I think Democrats who are wishy-washy with him are being disloyal Democrats. I think that Democrats, overall, have a problem with loyalty. We like to eat our own, like someone served them up with ketchup and salt. I think just him being there is hopeful. The world’s racism problems are definitely not solved by electing one black man president, but it’s amazing that that’s how far we came. And I’m not disappointed at all.
What accomplishments can you name?
Besides killing pirates and designing a stimulus package that prevented us from going into a depression, and Afghanistan, and Cash for Clunkers and keeping people from getting kicked out of their houses? Making two transgendered appointments, mandating that same-sex couples get insurance coverage, being five seconds away from passing major healthcare legislation? The people who say he’s done nothing are just being assholes.
What about letting people like Sens. Max Baucus and Ben Nelson dilute the healthcare bill?
That’s embarrassing. That’s terrible. It’s not good. But it’s not like the way we do this healthcare legislation is the way it’s going to be forever. This is the foundation for the house. As long as we start it, I’m OK.
Should Obama have tried harder to discipline his own party?
That’s the one thing Republicans know how to do, and they do it really well—they stand behind their party and they respect it and they honor it. And that’s what Democrats need to learn how to do so that we can help him succeed instead of expecting him, and sarcastically waiting for him, to fail. It’s like weird, fickle high-school flirting. I’m in love with you for two weeks, and then two weeks later you’re at your locker with someone else.
—Brittany Rogers contributed to this interview
(LEFT) BRADACH: “I was disappointed when he adopted the war team that Bush had left in place.” (RIGHT) [ACKERMAN: “He’s looked at our state and found talent.&rdquo PHOTOS: Tom Martinez
THE PEACE ACTIVIST
During the campaign: Volunteer and house-parties organizer
When 21-year-old Marine Cpl. Travis Bradach-Nall was killed in Iraq by a cluster bomb in 2003, the soldier’s uncle, Portland lawyer John Bradach, became one of the city’s most outspoken peace activists. He led antiwar rallies and an impeachment drive against President George W. Bush.
After campaigning for John Kerry’s failed presidential bid in 2004, Bradach was an early supporter of Obama and felt a surge of hope on Election Day.
What did you think of Obama’s first year?
Earlier in the year I was saying I was cautiously disappointed in him—[then] I was really disappointed with him on the Afghan surge.
When did you start to sour on him?
I was disappointed when he adopted the war team that Bush had left in place. For Obama to take those guys on, he really has allowed himself to be maneuvered into adopting those policies. And that’s not why I voted for him. Now I’m really disappointed, more than cautiously disappointed.
Did you hear his justification for sending more troops?
I do not want to hear Barack Obama justifying war, period. I am tired of wasting American kids on that war and on that policy, which is not going to win and will just be an indefinite commitment of American blood and resources.
How does that jibe with his campaign rhetoric?
He has not lived up to his promise of change, and I’m disappointed with that. When he was pitching change, he was pretty aggressive. He said we can’t just keep doing the same old things with the same cast of characters in Washington and expect the same result, and he’s certainly done that with the war. He’s kept the same cast of characters and apparently expects a different result.
Have you given up on him?
He’s missed his opportunity to change the country in the way he said he would. But over Christmas I’ve given it some thought. He’s got a tough job, and he’s got the decided improvement of not being George Bush. So I’ll give him another year.
Job: Executive director, the Lazar Foundation
During the campaign: Member of Obama’s Oregon Environmental Steering Committee
Copenhagen be damned. Despite Obama’s failure to muscle through a treaty at the U.N. climate change summit in December, Ackerman remains committed to the candidate she backed for his environmental policies.
A career activist who funds conservation projects in her current job at the Portland-based Lazar Foundation, Ackerman is still hopeful.
What’s Obama’s record on the environment?
When he started, he wanted to do something on global warming, and that bill hasn’t yet passed. And Copenhagen didn’t happen in the way that he had hoped, so people are not happy about that. But I don’t think it’s the end.
That doesn’t sound particularly hopeful.
It takes longer than a year. But he’s thinking about it. He’s moving forward. He’s looked at our state and found talent. We’ve been thinking about this for years, and now the Obama administration took our homegrown [Oregon State University professor] Jane Lubchenco and said, “We’ll put you in charge of NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration].” So this is the kind of thing that’s really inspiring to me—he’s moving forward with a vision, but he’s thinking about it from all sides.
What’s he done specifically for Oregon?
Let’s talk about ocean conservation. A lot of people are talking about how to preserve wildlife, and at the same time also there’s wave energy that needs to happen in Oregon. He said, “OK, let’s create a task force of reputable folks who actually know something about oceans on a broad scale, and let’s think about how to protect all the resources we care about with oceans.” They’ve had public meetings, and they’re coming out now with a process to move forward.
What about people who say he blew the Copenhagen climate change summit?
Was it Obama that blew that? Or was it the politics of the situation? China was recalcitrant, and Congress has not given him their indication of where they want to go. The one place he has control, EPA, he’s said we’re going to move forward and try to do something here [regulate carbon], because we have to do something.
THORPE: “It’s a travesty that abortion opponents have been allowed to hijack the healthcare reform bill over this issue.” IMAGE: Tom Martinez
THE PRO-CHOICE ADVOCATE
Job: Executive director, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon
During the campaign: Member of Obama’s National LGBT Steering and Policy Committee
A former director of the gay-rights advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon, Thorpe joined the Obama campaign early in 2008, when many in the gay community were still backing Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Today, Thorpe heads Planned Parenthood’s political arm in Oregon.
On the abortion front, Thorpe is gravely disappointed with the proposed healthcare bills in Congress. But on gay rights, she’s thrilled Obama signed a hate-crimes bill and gave benefits to same-sex federal employees.
You back Obama, but he doesn’t support gay marriage.
Every candidate said that. It goes to electability. I didn’t want that issue to be the one that allowed Republicans to stay in control of the White House. Being a veteran of the struggle around marriage equality, I recognized this was not the time to make this a presidential campaign issue.
He hasn’t followed through on his promise to change the Defense of Marriage Act.
Not yet. But the hate-crimes bill was the first time the federal government passed a bill that mentions sexual orientation as a protected class. It lays the groundwork for the rest of the legislation to happen.
What about abortion rights? He said he’d sign the Freedom of Choice Act, but that never came to his desk.
He also said he would strike down the abortion gag rule [preventing programs that receive U.S. foreign aid from discussing abortion]. And he did that his third day in office.
Where has he disappointed you?
Both in the House and Senate, the heathcare reform bills put limitations on coverage for abortion. I think it’s a travesty that abortion opponents have been allowed to hijack the healthcare reform bill over this issue. I think it’s terrible, and I’m disappointed that the president has not done more to keep that from happening. And at the same time I think we need a healthcare reform bill, and I’m incredibly proud that it’s going to be passed.
What do you say to people who are losing faith?
First of all, I point out that these criticisms started the day after the inauguration. It is too early to judge this administration. I’m not going to be part of what brings this man down, I’m going to be part of the good things that happened. It doesn’t mean I won’t be disappointed at times. It doesn’t mean I don’t wish he was making stronger statements on choice, or that I’m not concerned about what the health reform bill will look like in the end. But I refuse to be part of what’s bringing Obama down.