With the country in crisis and the electorate rallying behind a message of hope and change, an insurgent presidential campaign unleashed a 30-minute prime-time ad one week before the election. A dark-haired senator in a faux Oval Office told stories of Americans struggling in George W. Bush’s America.
There was a white mother of five in Kansas who joined the military to help pay her bills, a partially retired elderly African-African couple in Ohio and a Hispanic special education teacher who was a single mother in Arizona. Each talked about their financial struggles and concerns about the future.
The pitch never mentioned the candidate’s opponent or for that matter, the Republican Party. But it featured a stirring vow to reshape everyday Americans’ relationship with their government. “I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face,” Barack Obama said. “I will listen to you when we disagree. And, most importantly, I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.”
Eight years later, in separate interviews, each of the featured individuals professed to being better off. They are, for the most part, complimentary of the 44th president’s performance and policies. And each participant in the de facto infomercial believes congressional Republicans deserve blame for sinking many other worthy Obama proposals.
When the ad aired on Oct. 29, 2008, the country was in the grip of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — a 19-month maelstrom that would spike unemployment, crush consumer confidence and prompt a spate of foreclosures and personal bankruptcies.
Against that backdrop, Obama called the 2008 election a “defining moment” for the country because “much that’s wrong in our country goes back even farther than that — we’ve been talking about the same problems for decades, and nothing is ever done to solve them.” He cast his race with the GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, as “a chance for our leaders to meet the demands of these challenging times and keep faith with our people.”
Obama, at first to his peril, backed up the talk by making job creation a crucible with which to evaluate his presidency. In the face of stubbornly high unemployment, he enlisted the help of former President Bill Clinton and investment guru Warren Buffet, among others, to fight GOP criticism that his administration was slowing growth with burdensome regulations and tax policies.
In the intervening years, the jobless rate has dropped to 4.6 percent, its lowest level since the summer of 2007. The economy has bounced back — though at a slower pace than the president’s critics would like. The participants, all Obama supporters then and now, believe he hasn’t received enough credit for his economic policies. And they paint a far more optimistic portrait of the country than one of a nation of left-behinds advanced by President-elect Donald Trump and many of Obama’s congressional critics during the just-completed campaign.
“I’m not worse off, no,” replied Larry Stuart of Sardinia, Ohio, who at 77 still drives a forklift part time at a local Wal-Mart. “Things have been pretty good for me for the last eight years. I’ve still got a job, still working.”
In the years before Obama took office, Stuart and his wife Juanita were headed toward their retirement years, eager to, as the candidate-narrator put it, “reap the rewards from their working years.” Their six children were grown. Their house was paid for. “But with her rheumatoid arthritis and other ailments, their medical bills have been rising,” Obama explained. Financial worries gradually overtook the retirement excitement.
Today, the Stuarts say a big reason they feel on firmer ground is the health care overhaul that Obama muscled through as his top priority and legacy issue. When Larry retired from his railroad job, Juanita lost her health coverage and couldn’t buy a new policy because she had pre-existing conditions.
Enter the 2010 health care law. “I benefited a lot,” Juanita told Roll Call. “Some of the insurance companies would have raised my premiums so high because of some of my medical conditions. That’s really what got me interested in Barack in the first place. I feel for people who don’t have insurance,” she said. “If you’ve never been in their shoes, you don’t know what it’s like. … It was rough.”
Asked to compare their financial situation after two Obama terms, Juanita paused ever so briefly before replying, “I do think our lives have been better.” And she thinks Obama could have accomplished more. “I’m really saddened by the way he was received, and how he was treated by the Republicans,” she said. Larry chimes in: “The president had a lot of walls go up against him.”
That’s a message the Obama White House is aggressively broadcasting on its way out.
‘We could have done more’
“We certainly would have appreciated greater cooperation with Republicans in Congress because there is more that we could have done to strengthen the economy and to improve our country, and even commonsense things like an investment in infrastructure, reform of our tax code, and immigration reform, all of which would have had significant positive economic benefits,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters last month. “We could have done more.”
Rebecca Pheffer, 42, also reports she is better off and gives Obama some credit for that. But the Kansan also believes the health care law was flawed from the start. She is more inclined to give the president high marks for his comportment while in office: “President Obama and the first lady reflected grace not seen since the Kennedys. He handled himself in a way that is truly what the coined term ‘to be presidential’ means,” said Pheffer. (Her last name was Johnston in the video; Pheffer has since divorced.)
Pheffer has moved to a more rural community in Kansas. Looking for help paying the bills, she also joined the Army Reserves in 2009. Her comments suggest that, more than anything Obama enacted, those moves helped improve her economic situation. Moving “helped decrease living expenses and the community camaraderie is phenomenal. It has been a blessing for my children and I,” she told Roll Call. And her now-concluded military stint “helped supplement my income, as well as decreased some health care costs during my contract.”
In the 2008 video, Pheffer spoke of how her family was struggling back then to make ends meet. Her then-husband, Bryan Johnston, needed knee surgery, adding to their “tight” money situation. He had a torn ACL and meniscus, but “they put off the operation, to take care of other things,” candidate Obama said. Pheffer then described their bills as just “going up and up and up,” saying she couldn’t “remember a time when I didn’t have to worry about this stuff.” Obama launched into a lengthy description of policies he planned to enact to help people like Pheffer and her family.
Issues with the health care law
“This is where our snacks would go,” Pheffer said at one point in the video, leading a camera to a half-empty refrigerator. She pointed to its shelves, describing them as more empty than she would prefer and laying out her method of making sure her kids make do until the next grocery run. “If they know that this is it for them for the whole week then they will make it last longer,” she said, before providing a bleak assessment of getting by at the end of the George W. Bush administration: “I think everybody feels the same way that they’d like to see an end in sight to all the worry and the chaos of everyday living, trying to make ends meet.”
Unlike the Stuarts, Pheffer, who gets her coverage through work, has issues with the Obama’s replumbing of the health system.
“Health care costs have been and continue to be an obstacle I face. My employer-provided coverage has a family premium of $250 per month with a $6,000 deductible. This potentially would have me pay well over $700 a month for one year in out of pocket expenses,” she said. “This is not feasible for my current budget.”
Prices on the health insurance marketplaces, or “exchanges,” aren’t an option, she said, noting that they “even exceed my employee coverage.” To Pheffer, the fundamental construct of the law “is not a ridiculous plan.” She faults the president and his aides for failing to anticipate that major health plans the law relies on to provide coverage would balk at the cost and walk away, leaving some state marketplaces down to a single provider.
“Insurance companies were not getting the money they needed to get the prices down, so they had to get out of those states,” she said, adding that Obama administration officials “put the cart before the horse.” Pheffer also blames state governments for opting against expanding their Medicaid programs, “based on a political statement — not based on merit.”
Making the case
Obama and his proxies are busy making the case that the health care law is working and that Trump should leave many of its provisions — or the entire law — in place. Earnest recently treated reporters to a lengthy description of a handful of “metrics” the administration is using to make its case for its health care framework, including subtracting 20 million Americans from the uninsured rolls. Senior administration officials have been quick to note that recent premium hikes have affected relatively few Americans, because the law continues to provide many with subsidies and is also driving down health care costs.
Julianna Sanchez of Albuquerque, New Mexico, another video participant, still teaches children with special needs, and still has her second job taking care of a family member. She’s added a third gig, running a small candle-making business out of a studio she built in her backyard. “It’s a lot of work,” she said with a laugh. “I do pretty much everything by myself.” Overall, she sums up her financial situation after two Obama terms this way: “I’m afloat. If my kids need something, I can help. Do I have a huge bank account? No. Do I have a huge savings? No. I guess you could say I live kind of paycheck-to-paycheck.”
In the 2008 campaign video in which Obama described Sanchez’s two-job struggle to provide for her family, Sanchez explained her daily predicament this way: “The pressure is just to keep your head above water so you don’t feel like you are drowning all the time.” From medical expenses to the price of food to gassing up her automobile, “it takes so much out of my paycheck,” she said. To the candidate, Sanchez embodied a large swath of voters. “Every parent in America wants the same thing,” Obama said in the video, “a good education for their child.”
Sanchez acknowledges the past eight years “were hard” as a single mother with two children with a mortgage, but later, she again stresses that she is “not at all worse off.” One factor that has helped her financial situation is that her kids are now adults. In fact, her 26-year-old daughter is now off of her health insurance plan.
Chasing a dream
Trump’s election demonstrated that more than 60 million voters felt Obama’s way wasn’t helping them make ends meet. But Sanchez, still an Obama supporter and loyal Democrat, believes people heard Trump’s bold promises and decided to chase a dream. “It’s about learning to live how you can. Some people get so miserable because they don’t have more money,” she told Roll Call. “But how much do you need to make?”
Sanchez said she is “disappointed” that Republicans in Congress, even before Obama was sworn in, vowed to block his agenda. “They just never gave him the opportunity to do what he needed to do. I didn’t think this was some God-like man who was going to fix everything. No, not at all. But the elected people in Congress are supposed to work with him, like any president,” Sanchez said.
Instead, congressional Republicans blocked Obama from the start. He answered by largely refusing to play Washington’s usual tit-for-tat between Capitol Hill and the White House. He and his team barely consulted with the GOP — and even had infrequent communications with friendly Democrats. When he did reach out or submit legislation, Republicans declared many of his agenda items dead on arrival. The result, once Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 midterm election, was gridlock. Voters didn’t think Washington worked before, and they became increasingly disgusted with the Obama era’s government shutdowns, threats for others, “fiscal cliff” teetering and general ill will.
Trump detected this anger and portrayed himself as a one-man Washington fixer. More than 61 million Americans bought in despite the GOP candidate’s harsh words for months about minority groups, immigrants, women and just about anyone who dared question his razor-thin policy prescriptions. His rhetoric about health care, mass deportations and a strict implementation of his “law-and-order” platform has led to fears of violence and a general unease — including for those profiled in the 2008 infomercial.
The people interviewed for this piece, weeks after Trump’s surprise win, are both confused and afraid. “During the Obama administration, there was an undeniable employment increase,” Pheffer noted, before adding, “to which no credit seems to be given.” To be sure, many of those who voted for Trump — a man with no government experience and the thinnest of policy prescriptions for helping people like the Stuarts, Sanchez and Pheffer — clearly were in no mood to give the country’s first African-American president much credit at all.
Pheffer said she realizes it might “seem [a] cliché to expect peace” under Trump, but added, “Something has got to change.” Echoing the Stuarts and Sanchez, she describes herself as “never [feeling] as fearful as I am now for the safety of my law enforcement officer [boyfriend] and the future of my children.” Obama ran on hope and change, but now, those who appeared in his video would settle for, as Pheffer put it, “a time where everyone can feel validated and secure.”