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.
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.
Rob Noyes got a 20-minute notice that the president was coming to lunch at his Countryside Barbeque restaurant in the city of Marion. Located off the interstate near Asheville, N.C., Marion has a population of 8,000. According to its welcome signs, Marion is "where main street meets the mountains." When Obama's motorcade arrived on Oct. 17, police blocked off entrance and exit ramps along the interstate, forcing travelers stopped for gas to take extended breaks.
Inside Countryside Barbeque, agents conducted a security sweep with bomb-sniffing dogs, locals eating lunch submitted to checks with metal detecting wands, and two chefs traveling with the president supervised the cooks as they prepared Obama's pork platter. The menu says this popular plate is "made with lots of love" and includes sweet potato fries seasoned with brown sugar.
Obama went to every booth in the restaurant before taking his meal to go. He heard concerns about tight budgets, layoffs, bailouts, and regulations.
A week after Obama's visit, Noyes, the restaurant's owner, said he is concerned that most of the president's advisors have academic backgrounds rather than business experience. "They haven't been out here in the trenches going through the trials that we do," said Noyes, who is quick to add that he is frustrated with nearly all of Washington's partisan gridlock. "When both parties cover their tails we don't solve anything."
Local music store owner Woody Killough, who has written Obama a couple of times, said he is willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt for having to manage the war and the economy. "I can't hardly work and eat ice cream at the same time. Now that the war is over and soldiers are coming home he has to focus on jobs."
Obama left the barbeque restaurant after 35 minutes but not before paying for the meals of one table of diners. Obama's bus headed deeper into the Blue Ridge Mountains. But there remained one place in Marion that Ray Davis wished the president had visited.
Davis pastors the Clinchfield United Methodist Church located less than four miles from Countryside Barbeque. Here at this one-story red brick church a team of volunteers serves hot meals to about 500 people each week. The program started two and a half years ago after Davis visited a local elementary school for lunch. There he saw a girl shovel the scraps of her lunch into an empty milk carton.
"What are you doing," he asked.
"Mr. Davis, I'm taking this home so I can have something to eat tonight," the girl replied.
Davis started a backpack program providing 285 children with a pack of food to take home every Friday. Then the economy got worse. So Davis expanded the meal program. He now has 65 volunteers and relies on donations to cover the $500 weekly cost.
The unemployment rate in the county is more than 12 percent. But counting those who have stopped looking for work, Davis thinks the real unemployment figure is somewhere between 20 to 24 percent. Several of the area's textile mills and furniture factories that formed the community's economic backbone have shut down. Residents who lost homes began sleeping in their cars. Then they lost their cars. A tent city sprouted up near Marion's railroad tracks.
"I came up with this program so they can save what little finances they have to keep their homes and cars," Davis said. "But that hasn't worked out for many."
Davis refuses government funding-"too many conditions, too much paperwork," he says-but he still regrets that Obama, so close in his trek through Marion, did not visit. "He could have seen the people who are hurting and suffering and the people who are trying to take care of them without the government's help. You can talk about it all day long. But I believe our politicians would have greater passion if they could see."
Crossing into southern Virginia, I had one more stop to make on my backtracking of Obama. Driving through the center of Brodnax, Va., my odometer barely registered one mile from one welcome sign to the next along the town's Piney Pond Road.
Here Obama seemed to get the best reception of his trip. During a group photo someone yelled, "Yes we can!" Stopping next to a childcare center and a one-story brick post office, Obama shook the hands of bystanders young and old including Wesley Morris. I met Morris a week later outside the same post office. The owner of a local rental company, Morris said it was hard not to be impressed with Obama's "good personality."
But he accused the president of not changing the Washington culture like he promised. "The change he has brought has not been good," Morris said. "We can't stand 14 more months of this much less four more years."
Morris opposes Obama's proposed tax increases: "Why are you going to penalize somebody for getting off their front porch and making something of themselves?" He also thinks that Obama's insistence on bigger government shows that he doesn't grasp that the country is broke: "I'm an economics major, and I can't wrap my mind around it. But I do know that I can't eat steak five times a week when I'm broke."
However, two retirees also visiting the post office said Obama deserves a second term. "I don't think Congress has really supported him," said Alvin Hayspell. "They are just kicking him any way they can," added Nathaniel Harrison.
Obama's campaign tactic to blame Congress for the stagnant economy seems to be taking hold with several people I talked to on my trip. "If they vote against taking steps that we know will put Americans back to work right now," Obama said on this bus tour, "then they're not going to have to answer to me. They're going to have to answer to you."
But the biggest discovery I had following in Obama's footsteps was the near unanimous discontent over Obama's GOP challengers. Creed in Reidsville said she is tired of the GOP debates. "Everybody huffs and puffs and says whatever they can to get into office." Hayspell of Brodnax answered my question about the Republican contenders with a question of his own that should unsettle conservatives: "Who's running?"
Obama's trips to court voters in states that bucked their GOP traditions in 2008 will continue over the next year. Of the nine states that went Democrat in the 2008 presidential election after voting for a Republican in 2004, eight are listed as toss-ups for 2012. For Obama to win, he likely needs to recapture them all again.
Obama will be in his element on the campaign trail. But, as his armored Ground Force One racks up the miles in the coming months, Obama's reelection hopes may not survive too many homemade roadside signs like the one a woman held aloft as the presidential motorcade drove through the North Carolina mountains last month: "We Believed, We Voted. Now What."