On the cusp of change

Chris McGreal speaks to Americans about Barack Obama’s first 100 days as president

They are used to being patient at the Excelsior Club.

Generations of African-Americans who made the old art deco bar their watering hole and a centre of social agitation in once-segregated Charlotte have seen some of the changes they worked for. At times, the breakthroughs were dramatic and swift—but mostly change crept over North Carolina’s largest city as the racial barriers to voting, jobs and power receded and the attitudes of their fellow Americans softened.

So the euphoria among the Excelsior’s clientele at the historic and, not so long ago, seemingly unimaginable, election of an African-American US president 100 days ago is giving way to an acceptance that this is the long game.

Those who, like the club’s owner, James Ferguson II, have vested hopes in Barack Obama to transform lives in the surrounding neighbourhood, blighted by poverty, job insecurity and struggle, see his decisive early steps as reason to believe he will also dramatically improve the lot of those who have been left behind by conservatism.

“Already Obama’s having a tremendous impact,” Ferguson said, working his way through a plate of shrimps and chips. “He’s set a different tone domestically and internationally by making it very clear that, as powerful as we are as a country, you don’t try and go it alone.
He’s trying to establish a tone of dialogue. He’s been criticised by some because he’s indicated a willingness to talk to the North Koreans and the Iranians. To me, that’s a sign of strength—that you try to deal with your enemies on some terms other than just sheer firepower.

“He’s given people a new sense of confidence in America. He’s given the right mix of hope and reality, and a genuine sense of care and compassion for ordinary people.”

That, however, is not a universal view in a state Obama took for the Democrats for the first time in 32 years, helped by the economic crisis.

The downturn rocked Charlotte, the second largest banking centre in the US, with nearly 3 000 financial sector jobs lost in February alone and unemployment rising sharply. But in a state that sent the racist and bigot Jesse Helms to the Senate for 30 years, Obama’s path to power was not straightforward.

He won only 35% of the white vote—but that was up 8% on John Kerry’s campaign four years earlier and, combined with a surge in the turnout by African-American voters, enough to deliver victory. Polls since then show that support for the president in the state is edging up, with more than half the voters saying he is doing a good job.

Ferguson, a lawyer who co-founded Charlotte’s first racially integrated law firm, says attitudes will continue to shift in favour of the president.

“There are a number of people around here, white mainly, who, because they couldn’t conceive of having a black president, couldn’t conceive of having black children running around on the White House lawn, and couldn’t conceive of having an African-American first lady who was strong, a first lady with charisma of her own, wanted him to fail and would have criticised him severely if he had not been able to handle things in the way that he did,” he said.

“But because he has acquitted himself in the manner that he has, people are beginning to come round. They are having to look beyond race. I was never 100% confident he could win enough of the white vote to win the election. That’s a testament to him, but it’s also an indication that we are making progress and there are times when people can look beyond race.”

One of those who does is Matthew Ridenhour. He says his eight years in the well-integrated US marine corps has made him blind to the colour of a person’s skin and he would have voted for Obama without hesitation if he had shared the president’s political philosophy.

But the 31-year-old former sergeant doesn’t—and he says the president is proving to be worse than he had feared.

For a start, there’s the release of the torture memos.

“It’s a bad idea,” Ridenhour said. “You can’t ever show your hand to the other side. I know torture’s a bad thing and we don’t want to practise it, but, at the same time we’ve got to protect our own and sometimes that requires an escalated interrogation method.

“[The release of the memos] compromises our guys in the field. I don’t really see what good comes of it besides the administration feeling good about it.”

But the real issue for Ridenhour is money. He returned from a tour in Iraq a year ago deeply disillusioned with George Bush’s administration for several reasons. One was the high level of government spending, which is what most irritates him about Obama.

‘People [have] really started focusing on the spending and therefore the taxes,” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in a position where they’re projecting that our debt burden is a long-term security threat that’s as much a threat as terrorists. We can spend, spend, spend all we want to get through now—but what are we going to do 20 years from now when it’s time to pay the piper?

“The US government has no revenue-generating business. The way it generates revenue is through taxation. It’s going to need a lot more money, so it’s going to need a lot more taxes.”

The financial question, and a fear that the huge amounts thrown in to stimulating the economy will herald greatly increased government spending on healthcare and social problems, touches on a philosophy - the celebrated American frontier spirit of standing on one’s own feet, or leaving the poor to fend for themselves—that Obama’s presidency threatens to bury.

Ridenhour is at least true to his beliefs. He is a banker these days, working for one of the companies ­rescued with bailout money. So should Obama let his bank go under?

“Yes,” he said. “It’s a tough answer. It’s not one that a lot of people would agree with, but it’s capitalism. Sometimes you have to let things run their course. Let them file for bankruptcy and restructure.”

Charlotte’s mayor, Pat McCrory, is a Republican with his own doubts about all the spending, but he wouldn’t go that far. His city has good reason to be grateful to the federal government after it rescued the world’s largest financial services company, Bank of America, which is based there, with a $25-billion bailout and billions more in guarantees.

A second major bank was rescued by a government-engineered takeover by another company, but McCrory is sceptical about Obama’s strategy.

“Take the stimulus package. He said this is going to rebuild our infrastructure, but it’s being spent on things like repaving roads or paying for police officers for two or three years,” he said.

“That isn’t a long-term strategy. There’s a lot of money being spent for short-term return, which is exactly what got us in this mess. I’m hiring 150 police officers, which will be great, but the mayor replacing me is going to have to figure out how to pay for them two years from now.”

McCrory acknowledges that he has run up against an unusual political phenomenon: opinion polls put him well ahead in the race to become North Carolina governor in November, but, on election day, Obama’s supporters buried his bid. “It was an emotional commitment that was rare to see in politics,” he said.

“The only area where race played a major factor was in getting out the African-American vote. A recent survey came out that he got 100% of the African-American women’s vote [in North Carolina]. That’s just unheard of. That means I got none.”

McCrory said he had never been to the Excelsior Club. “I bet that 99% of the [white] people don’t know where it is. I’ve never been inside,” he said.

One of the club’s regular patrons, Fran Farrer, said the mayor would have done well to have come and listened. Then, he said, he would have understood the true nature of Obama’s support.

“We have 50 children from one school in the city of Charlotte that have no homes, but downtown they are building another coliseum when we already have one,” said Farrer, who sits on a number of local groups aimed at alleviating the plight of the poor.

“Things have changed here. I got into a conversation with two parents, one with a Jewish background, one from a Caucasian background, who traditionally voted Republican. They were talking about their children voting for Obama, and they didn’t understand ... The children can see what is wrong.”

But Farrer fears that, with rising expectations, the patience learned at the Excelsior Club may fall away. “I’ve tried to talk to a lot of people, because the day after the election they expected the world to change,” he added. “They were not listening when Barack Obama and his supporters said it’s a time thing. You can’t just wipe the slate clean.

“The folk that do not understand that may feel dismayed. I think the folk that do understand, and it’s a growing number, will be OK and understand it’s a process that we’ll have to work on.”—

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