"I think President Obama is the most visionary president we've had since Eisenhower."
Unlikely praise coming from any quarters these days, but especially from a Republican whose wife is running for the Florida GOP gubernatorial nomination. But the 76-year-old Doc Dockery (husband of Paula) is not just any Republican. He fought for 28 years and spent millions of dollars to have high-speed rail come to the Sunshine State, and helped pass a constitutional amendment in 2000 to create a high-speed rail authority that ultimately was repealed in 2004. So he was understandably pleased last Thursday when he attended the president's town-hall meeting at the University of Tampa, where Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced a $1.25 billion grant to begin construction of a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando. Though it wasn't the complete $2.56 billion that ConnectUs' Ed Turanchik and other Florida lawmakers had been lusting for, it's considered to be a dynamic first installment toward providing thousands of construction jobs to a state economy suffering as bad as any in the country.
Of course, Dockery was not alone in expressing support for the president last week. Thunderous applause greeted him when he appeared on stage at the Bob Martinez Sports Center, and he rose to the occasion with a typically rousing speech. But even amidst the town-hall camaraderie, there was no way for Obama to escape his or the country's troubles. With unemployment at lows not seen in Florida since before the creation of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one particular question-and-answer exchange seemed to epitomize the quandary that Obama faces, both in style and substance.
Clearwater small business owner Steve Gordon expressed his frustration at the difficulties of obtaining a business loan. He wondered why the Small Business Administration couldn't lend the money, instead of the banks. "Why can't you use the SBA just like you lent directly to Wall Street, you lent directly to the automakers, you lent directly to the banks — why can't the government make small business [grants] available directly to us?" Gordon asked.
The president struggled mightily to answer the question in a way that would make Gordon, and the partisan audience, feel better. But in a sound-bite world, his 793-word response — explaining that the majority of small business loans would have to come from the private sector — made some reporters literally yawn.
With a struggling economy, and with health care reform in possible critical condition, much of the political press has characterized the Obama administration, only a year in office, as a presidency in crisis. But many of Obama's supporters are staying the course. Among the thousands eagerly waiting to hear him speak last week was health care activist Doug Hickman from Redington Shores. Though he's frustrated that there isn't a health care bill ready to be signed, he's keeping the faith.
"Is it hard not to get discouraged?" he asked rhetorically. "Sure, it's hard. We're trying to change what began with Ronald Reagan. You don't change 28 years in a year. Am I still on board? You betcha."
Hickman said that part of Obama's struggles is that he's tried to end "the imperial presidency," by allowing Congress to make the laws. "You advise and consent with them, and he tried that. But who would have thought he'd end up with a party of no, and not a second party?"
Similar sentiments were heard from others who'd waited for hours in line, none of them as disillusioned or disappointed as the national political class.
Ashley Southern is an art therapy major at UT, part of the generation inspired by Obama's "Yes We Can" mantra in 2007-2008. Southern said being green to the political process has its pros and cons. "A lot of his [Obama's] ideas are idealistic, and the kids in our age group are drawn to that because they're big ideas, and more power to him if it happens, but I think older generations think that it's not so possible. And maybe we don't realize it as much?"
One reason that some progressives are skeptical is the administration's failure so far to produce a health care bill. But some observers wonder whether the real problem was the decision to pursue reform in the first place, especially at a time when there were so many other pressing concerns.
Kaki Caruson, a professor of political science at USF, believes that the motivation to achieve a universal health care system made sense a year ago, but thinks the devastating economic downturn wrecked those plans. "I think if we were in a robust economy and we didn't have the same type of mortgage and banking crises," she said, "perhaps people might have been more open to health care change. Instead, she says, "I think it was a tough time to tackle this issue...the climate was difficult to enact this much change."
Caruson said that Ronald Reagan's famous line — "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" — is as good a standard as any for assessing a president or governor. "People don't think they're better off," she says. "They don't see wages getting better. But economic recovery beats to its own beat, and there's only so much you can do."
Leading the opposition all year in the streets has been the Tea Party movement, which made its presence felt with a protest alongside Kennedy Boulevard near the UT campus. One proud member of the movement, a woman who wanted to be identified only as Barbara from Orlando, carried a sign in support of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who was seen on television during the State of the Union address scoffing at Obama's criticism of the recent campaign finance decision.
"I'm just pointing out that there are people in official positions that also understand when they're being lied to," she remarked. She called the State of the Union address divisive. "I didn't like the 'party of no,'" she said.
When asked what she made of the president's plan to meet with Republicans, she was equally dismissive. "He'll meet with him, but he's not going to get off his rock. This is the hill he wants to die on."
It's a hill that still carries large Democratic Party majorities in the House and Senate, despite the Washington insider talk that having 41 votes in the minority somehow trumps 59 in the majority. And it's evident that in Tampa, there are plenty of people who still have Obama's back, despite the naysayers. Check with them in another year and it may not be the same feeling, but as Obama said last week, "I don't quit." Many of his supporters aren't ready to quit either — not just yet.