Updated at 10:24 a.m. on January 26.
Remember Velma Hart?
An attractive, poised African-American woman who voted for President Obama in 2008, she became a symbol of the frustrated middle class when she told him at a town hall meeting last fall that was “exhausted’’ from defending his administration and still waiting for the change she had voted for. A second burst of national publicity came two months later when she lost her job as chief financial officer at AMVETS, a service organization for veterans.
But life goes on, long after the media loses interest. Hart is still looking for work. And on Tuesday, she was doing the same thing as millions of other Americans: watching the State of the Union on TV and debating the merits of the speech with a group of friends.
“I liked what he said about Americans living within their means, making cuts to get by, and how they deserve a government that does the same,’’ Hart said. “That was profound to me. We are fooling ourselves that the current government spending is sustainable.’’
Hart was juggling a pen, legal pad, Blackberry, and iPad, making notes to herself and scrolling through e-mails and comments on her Facebook page.
“I think he pulled it off,’’ she said. “”He communicated a message on the important issues. I made a list of the things he should talk about, and he hit on every one.’’
Hart watched the speech with a friend from high school, Pamela Springs, 49, a Democrat in the public relations business; Tangie Newborn, 50, a registered independent and business consultant; and Linda Tucker, 39, a lifelong Republican who worked with Hart at AMVETS. Springs hosted the gathering in her apartment in D.C.'s trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood. A generous spread of cheese wedges and crackers graced the coffee table. The pre-speech conversation ran the gamut from the president’s approval ratings (going up) to Michelle Obama (looks fabulous in everything) to the bailout of the auto industry (mixed reviews).
During the speech, Hart kept up a running commentary. After Obama said, “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,’’ Hart chimed in. “Hear hear! That is indeed the measure.’’
Obama: “ I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear…’’
“That’s me, guys,’’ Hart interrupted.
Obama: “And last month, we finalized a trade agreement with South Korea that will support at least 70,000 American jobs…’’
“Where are the jobs?’’Hart asked wearily, rubbing her forehead.
Obama: “ Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break…’’
“Yes Lord. Amen to that,’’ Hart said. She had to go on. “There’s no equity in the system now. We’re not talking about jacking up the taxes so high that they move their money out of the country, but we’re saying that they need to pay their fair share.’’
Hart, a Democrat and an Army veteran, lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., with her husband of 27 years and her two teen-aged daughters. Her unwitting and sudden foray into public life after the town hall last year, which led to an appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball, and a send-up on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, has made her wary of talking about herself and her family.
“You’ll have to call my publicist,’’ she said apologetically when reached at home a few days ago. She declined to give her exact age or her husband’s occupation, and she agreed to the National Journal interview only if it took place outside her home.
“I’m very private about certain things.’’ Hart said. “I’m not a politician, nor am I wise about things like that. For me, personally, all the media was very frightening and overwhelming, and very unexpected.’’
Here’s what Hart said to Obama at the forum sponsored by CNBC: “I’m one of your middle-class Americans, and quite frankly, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting.’’
Adding that she her husband thought their cash-strapped “hot dog and beans’’ days were behind them, she asked, bluntly, “Is this my new reality?’’
But Hart cringes at the notion that she attacked the president of the United States on national television. She was a “staunch supporter’’ before the Sept. 20 town hall meeting, and she still is “even more passionate’’ supporter today.
“What I asked was turned into something negative, like a slam, rather than the heartfelt question it was,’’ she said. “If we’re going to help him help us, we have to be candid when we have the opportunity…I thought I was doing a patriotic thing, trying to speak to the president about what was important, and what happened was this machine took over that sought to vilify my questions and attack a man that’s done great things.’’
Hart said that strangely, the anxiety she felt before she lost her job is worse than the uncertainty of when she will find a new one.
“What I am asking for is leadership and action and the real test will be tomorrow,’’ she said. “What will Congress do with what they hear? What will the administration do? The test is tomorrow.’’
For Hart, tomorrow's schedule includes lunch with a friend, and a couple of conference calls with nonprofit boards she serves on, but no job interviews.