ELKHART — Four years ago, on Feb. 9, 2009, President Obama came to deliver a speech at Concord High School, promoting his plan to help jump-start the moribund U.S. economy.
Supporters waited in the cold to see him and, once allowed inside McCuen Gym at Concord, cheered the newly installed president enthusiastically. Others, not so enamored, protested quietly outside.
Either way, it was significant and the buzz at the time was heavy.
Elkhart County was Obama’s first major stop outside Washington, D.C., following his inauguration a scant three weeks earlier. With the local economy hit particularly hard by the Great Recession and unemployment hovering around 15 percent, his visit seemed to carry symbolic weight. Maybe the presence of the president in Elkhart County of all places, here to tout his economic stimulus plan, would somehow speed the recovery.
Of course recovery didn’t come overnight — for some, it seems as bad as ever. And now, four years later, with Obama at the start of his second term, some of his early luster dimmed, the talk among those there at that Concord address that day is mixed.
Anna Davila of Elkhart, now an Indiana University South Bend junior and then a Central High School senior, still backs Obama. He visited Concord High School, urging passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the plan, eventually approved by Congress, that called for increased government spending on a number of fronts to get the economy going again.
“The hole that we were in before President Obama took office is going to take time to get out of,” she said an email. “There are many people out there who struggle to make ends meet, but they still haven’t given up. We shouldn’t give up hope on what President Obama’s vision is.”
George Burkley, a mortgage broker from Goshen who attended with his son, Charlie, his daughter, Alison, and a friend, Jim Radeline, is less sympathetic. He voted for Obama in 2008, calling himself “a disgruntled Republican,” but cast his ballot for GOPer Mitt Romney in 2012.
“Things have not progressed like they should have,” said Burkley.
The upshot of Obama’s presidency has been more regulation on small businesses, making it tougher to do business, and a runaway federal deficit. “Not having a balanced budget, to me, is unconscionable,” said Burkley.
A SUPPORTER, A PROTESTER
Davila, with her sister and two friends, had spent the night in front of McCuen Gym at Concord the night before Obama’s address to assure good seats. “Four years ago, I was a senior in high school, just turned 18, and I knew that going to see President Obama was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said.
His remarks gave Davila a sense of hope, and that persists. “Here in Elkhart,” Obama had said, “I am more confident than ever that we will get to where we need to be.”
She knew implementation of his plan would take time, but the president conveyed optimism. “I remember feeling like he was on our side and willing to help Elkhart get back on its feet,” she said.
Bob Moore of Goshen also showed up that day, but he had different intentions. He’s conservative, later launched a local tea party group called the Elkhart County Patriots, and made his way to Concord High School that day four years ago to protest Obama’s presence.
Obama’s stimulus plan, as Moore saw it, would cost jobs, hurt the economy, hurt families. He and a handful of others quietly held protest signs, chatted with some of the people waiting to see Obama and handed out fliers.
Since then, he thinks things have only gotten worse. Government spending has continued, leading to the growing U.S. deficit.
“We have a lot ahead of us,” said Moore. “A lot of the bad decisions he made are still working themselves out.”
NOT A SHORT RECOVERY
Burkley, being a mortgage broker, focuses most of his attention on the housing market, and he’s nervous, critical of moves of the government in recent years. There used to be 10, maybe 15 mortgage brokers in Elkhart County, but the rules and regulations are so stringent now that it’s been whittled to two, his firm and a competitor.
“It is much tougher to get a loan for a house. It’s much tougher to refinance,” he said, and that hampers the recovery of the housing market.
He had gone to see Obama “looking for answers” and left that day four years ago thinking the economy may be in for a rebound. That optimism has faded. While the economy has improved some — unemployment here measured 9.3 percent in December, down from around 15 percent when Obama visited and up from 8.3 percent last October — the fixes are only partial. The deficit is his biggest concern.
Rod Roberson, head of Church Community Services and a member of the Elkhart City Council, offers a mixed analysis. He was another of the many in the crowd at McCuen Gym.
The indicators he sees suggest things are improving, broadly speaking. Still, he notices no let-up in demand for services at CCS, which provides food to those in need. It may just be that Elkhart County was hit so hard, that recovery is necessarily going to be a slow, ongoing process.
“We were in a depression,” Roberson said. “We know now that this is not going to be a short recovery.”