CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- In this comfortable white-collar suburb southeast of Denver, the struggling economy is like a storm cloud on the horizon: menacing but still distant. A few miles away, in blue-collar Littleton, the downturn is more like a gale at the door. Yet both places share a volatile anxiety over the nation's direction that looms over the November election.
On July 4, 2008, I visited these two communities and found them starkly divided over the presidential race. White working-class voters in Littleton expressed doubts about Barack Obama's priorities, experience, and even loyalty, while Centennial's college-educated professionals were enthusiastic about his candidacy.
White-collar and blue-collar voters are reacting differently to the economic slowdown.
Through the 2008 election and Obama's presidency, blue-collar whites have remained his biggest skeptics, while he's drawn the most support from young people, minorities, and whites with college degrees (especially women). When I returned to Centennial and Littleton for their Independence Day celebrations last weekend, that basic fissure endured. But in both places, the sky had darkened for the president and his party.
The two communities present contrasting faces of the slowdown. At the parade outside Centennial's Willow Creek Elementary School, people spoke with anxiety about shrinking 401(k) accounts or sluggish business at their firms. But layoffs and foreclosures remain relatively rare on these streets.
Centennial City Council member Patrick Anderson says development was so slow last year that the council, which approves building permits, reduced its meeting schedule. Now he detects modest signs of revival, such as an IKEA store that recently broke ground. "We can see light at the end of the tunnel," Anderson says. "We just don't know how far away that light is." Even so, few shadows creased the picture of timeless suburban contentment that the parade presented with children on flag-festooned bicycles, toddlers teetering in Radio Flyer wagons, and fit young parents leading golden retrievers tugging against their leashes.
At Cornerstone Park in Littleton, where white and Hispanic families grilled burgers or tossed softballs across the open lawn, the downturn reached more deeply. Vance Corbett, his wife, and their four kids have moved in with his mother because he's been out of work since February. Kristy and Danny Garnica have taken in her father, a truck driver, because he has been jobless for a year. "For all the jobs he's applied for," she says worriedly, "it seems like it is getting further and further away."
At Cornerstone, more people than in 2008 praised Obama personally and no one questioned his patriotism. But his image as a Big Government liberal has hardened for many working-class whites. "I've been surprised by all the socialist stuff he's trying to push through," said Marc Terry, a beefy general contractor. More troubling for the president might be the several Hispanic men who also expressed disappointment. "Obama hasn't done any good that I know of," Danny Garnica said.
In white-collar Centennial, most of Obama's 2008 supporters still admire him as thoughtful and deliberate. They view him as making steady, if unspectacular, progress against the vast problems he inherited. "People don't realize how much worse it would have been if we hadn't done the stimulus," said Doug Christ, who owns rental properties and car washes.
But if Obama's support hasn't crumbled in Centennial, it has cracked. Mark Neifert voted for Obama, but he plans to vote Republican this year because he believes that much of the stimulus was wasted on special interests. Divided government, he says, "would provide a balance" and discourage "abuse of power." In both communities, conservative critics who feel that Obama has dangerously expanded Washington's role appear much more engaged than his supporters. Conservatives are drawing energy from a trinity of Obama provocations: deficits, federal spending, and bailouts that they believe ignored the virtues of "creative destruction."
Strikingly, even some who believe that Obama's economic program prevented a greater disaster remain offended about the lifelines to financial institutions; they consider the help irresponsible and even "un-American" because these institutions pocketed big bonuses while still constricting credit. And with fear growing that the economy is slowing again, Obama faces a widening sense that his agenda may have purchased only temporary relief at the price of lasting debt. Particularly in Centennial, but among some residents in Littleton too, Obama has a genuine well of respect, and time to recover lost ground before 2012. But each month of economic unease drains a little more goodwill from that well.
This article appears in the July 10, 2010, edition of National Journal.