LITTLETON, Colo.—Andrew Koplitz is the sort of voter who could make this election very difficult for President Obama. Katie McKinney is the sort who could allow him to survive, nonetheless.
Koplitz and McKinney were among nearly three dozen voters I interviewed in Littleton and Broomfield, two Denver suburbs, on an unusually steamy July 4 last week. For Democrats, the path to an Electoral College majority increasingly runs through diverse Sun Belt states like Colorado, with its mix of minorities and socially liberal whites. Upscale Broomfield, northwest of Denver, and more blue-collar Littleton, due south, represent different dimensions of the challenge that Obama faces in holding the coalition that powered his breakthrough victory here last time.
Fewer people expressed vitriolic opposition to Obama than I heard in Colorado trips during the tea party eruption in 2009 and 2010. Some people remain ideologically alienated from him, particularly over health care. “I just don’t agree with his health care initiative or his philosophy,” said Bill Seible, who works for a carpet-cleaning company. Another woman insisted: “I think if he’s reelected, the country is going to a place where we can’t get back.”
But mostly, people expressed their disappointment in Obama more in sorrow than anger. Almost everyone prefaced their comments by acknowledging that he was dealt a bad hand. After a full decade of stagnant incomes and meager job growth, Ronald Reagan’s famous question—Are you better off than you were four years ago?—seemed less relevant precisely because fewer people now expect to be. Instead, for most people I met, the choice between Obama and Mitt Romney pivots on a different question: Has the president made as much progress as reasonably could be expected, given the mess he inherited?
For Koplitz, 30, the answer is no. Koplitz, who works in customer service, was sitting in a Littleton park watching his young daughter splash with a flock of other children in a small creek. The county had banned fireworks because of the state’s searing drought, but around him were the other signs of a summer holiday: meat sizzling on grills (some destined for buns, others for tortillas); a Lions Club hot dog stand; families tossing baseballs.
In 2008, Koplitz backed Obama, and he still sympathizes with his hard road. “I think that guy walked into a [screwed]-up situation,” he said. “At least it didn’t get as bad as it could have been.” But although Koplitz credits Obama for averting disaster, he had expected to see more recovery by now. “It’s not as good as you could have hoped,” he said. Even more important, he sees no signs of acceleration ahead. “It’s just stagnation,” he sighed. “It’s not getting worse, but you are not improving anything right now.” As a result, Koplitz is leaning strongly toward Romney.
But the vast majority of the 2008 Obama supporters I met, both blue- and white-collar, were not prepared to abandon him. A few saw signs of economic improvement. With several women, Obama benefited from unease over Romney’s conservative social views. (“I look forward to maintaining control of my own body,” Jody Rodney, a homemaker and singer told me. “It’s kind of important to me.”) Other 2008 supporters praised Obama’s health care plan. But the most powerful glue for many of the president’s voters was the sense that he has earned a kind of sweat equity in delivering grudging progress against the same economic gales so disruptive in their own lives. “With the situation he came into, he did the best he could,” said McKinney, 33, a single mother who started work recently as a medical technician. “There’s no quick fix. The problems were 12 years in the making.”
The day’s conversations captured plenty of threats to Obama’s reelection, particularly the disillusionment of defectors like Koplitz, and minimal enthusiasm about voting among several Hispanics. In culturally divided states like Colorado, an outpouring of socially conservative rural voters beyond these suburbs could also swamp Obama.
But communities like Littleton and Broomfield usually tip the state, and the interviews suggest that Obama retains important assets, including faint excitement about Romney, even among Republicans. Most important, many voters here seem to be measuring Obama’s performance not against the booming 1990s, but rather the rocky ground they mostly have been traveling over since. “Things have been a struggle, but that’s everywhere, as far as I can see,” said Aaron Gibson, McKinney’s boyfriend and a short-order cook. “I’m working … for less than I’m worth.” That fatalism was much deeper among blue-collar than white-collar workers, but almost everyone I met portrayed the economy’s difficulties as far more intractable than a cyclical slowdown.
That sense of sustained struggle provides the yardstick for judging Obama. Those defecting from him, while generally unconvinced that Romney could do better, seem ready to simply try another approach. Those sticking with Obama believe that he’s produced all that can be asked against the headwinds of a turbulent new normal. Ironically, if the candidate of hope from 2008 survives, it may be partly because many Americans, after a grueling decade, view both the presidency and the economy with lowered expectations.
This article appears in the July 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.