Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Talk of the towns

Politics | After a bus tour of important swing states, the president left people happy to see him but not necessarily convinced that he should get four more years in Washington

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

NORTH CAROLINA and VIRGINIA-I had one request in late October after entering Reid's House Restaurant, located in North Carolina just below the Virginia border. I wanted to know where President Barack Obama had sat. Just one week earlier, the president's $1.1 million black armored bus, Ground Force One, had come to Reidsville and this roadside diner with the self-proclaimed "best food in town."

Soon I found myself back outside digging through my car for enough change to buy a late lunch. Reid's House is a cash-only establishment. However, owner Clint Marsh said he told Obama he'd make an exception and accept a check from him with proper identification. No such luck for me.

In 2008, by just three-tenths of a percentage point, North Carolina went Democratic in a presidential election for the first time since 1976. Neighboring Virginia also chose Obama, going Democratic for the first time since 1964.

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But one year away from the 2012 elections, Obama can no longer count on support from these two states. His approval ratings in both Virginia and North Carolina now are below 50 percent. On a mission to give these numbers a boost, Obama left behind the slog of legislating in Washington and spent three late October days in the two states.

This gave voters here an up-close view of the president's campaign charisma. At Reid's, Obama asked one diner if he'd eaten all his vegetables before dessert and told a couple married for 59 years that he had 44 years to catch up to them. Outside, Obama talked to a woman's grandmother on a cell phone and asked a brewery worker if he had any samples.

Obama seems more comfortable with this brand of street-level retail politicking than he does with Capitol Hill-level legislating. The next 12 months will afford Obama plenty of opportunities to play to his strength. Overcoming an aggressive campaign fueled by Obama's likely $1 billion campaign war chest will be the biggest hurdle for the eventual Republican nominee.

Reporters filed news accounts of Obama's North Carolina and Virginia bus swing with favorable crowd comments. One onlooker said Obama is a "handsome fella" while another said, "We love him dearly." One lady swore she'd never wash the hand Obama shook.

I wondered what the people in these mostly small towns would say a week later, after the excitement of the presidential entourage had worn off. Would the realities of the persistently high unemployment plaguing their communities trump the president's lingering charms?

WORLD would not foot the bill for a $1 million bus, so I drove myself in my 2004 Jeep Liberty.

"The country was headed in the wrong direction when (Obama) took office," said Carol Creed, my seatmate along the L-shaped counter inside Reid's where I sat on a stool and ate the same $4.65, two beef patties Master Burger ordered by Obama. "But he has done nothing to help it. I'd give him an F. He's failed."

Creed, a retired insurance worker, lists Democrats John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter as two of the best presidents in her lifetime. But she faults Obama for not having a plan other than throwing more money at the nation's problems in the form of bailouts, stimulus, and new entitlements. "We already have too much government in just about everything," she said.

The unemployment rate in this town of 15,000 is nearly 12 percent. That's higher than the national average. Young people, including two of Creed's three children, are abandoning Reidsville for work in bigger cities like nearby Greensboro. "I would have asked him if he would bring some jobs with him to Reidsville," said Faye Cayton, a waitress at this Waffle House-style diner who was off the day Obama visited.

Chesley Overby, retired from the Navy, said he is "super impressed that Obama went in there and got Bin Laden." Such approval of Obama's foreign policy is a common refrain on my trip. But Betty Talbot, who works at a local hospital, said she has grown tired of Obama's strategy of blaming George W. Bush for the nation's economic problems. "He controlled Congress for two years," she said. "Why didn't he get anything done then?" When asked about the 2010 healthcare law, Talbot just shakes her head.

After finishing off my chocolate pie (owner Marsh boasts that Obama ordered two desserts-the pie and the banana pudding. But I had enough change leftover for just one), I drove deeper into the state, past trees sprinkled with fall colored leaves, toward my next stop in the North Carolina mountains.


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