Reporting from Sparks, Nev. — In November 2008, Alex Gevedon cast his presidential ballot for Barack Obama, joining thousands of independents who helped deliver an unexpectedly huge win for the Democrat here in Nevada.
But ask his feelings about the president today and Gevedon lets out a long burst of air, as though he -- and not just his view of Obama -- was rapidly deflating. He sighs once. Twice.
"Honestly? I didn't think the country would stay that bad this long," Gevedon finally says. He is 23 and works part-time doing cleanup work at a surgery center. He would like to apply his biology degree toward a full-time job, perhaps doing research back home in Kentucky. His advice to Obama: "Forget about healthcare. . . . Get back to stuff that is a little more reasonable and feasible than what we're focusing on right now."
When the president visits Las Vegas on Friday he will find that Nevada is no longer the economic basket case he came to know during his frequent campaign stops.
It's gotten worse.
Unemployment was 8% on election day. It was 13% in December, after a year in which nearly 81,000 jobs disappeared. More than 60% of homeowners owe more on their mortgage than their properties are worth. The state, a perennial leader in population growth -- attracting 5,000 people a month to the Las Vegas area alone -- is losing residents for the first time since the mid-1940s.
When the economy swooned and nearly collapsed in the fall of 2008, Obama was the political beneficiary. He won Nevada, a conservative-leaning state, by a startling 12 percentage points over Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. More than 60% of voters surveyed said the economy was their uppermost concern and 3 in 5 of them voted for Obama.
Now, fairly or not, many people blame the president for the bad times. State polls show his favorability and job performance ratings hovering below 50%. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, though, is the one in more immediate trouble. The Democrat trails a batch of less-than-top-shelf GOP candidates as he fights for reelection in November.)
The president certainly has his defenders. "I think Obama got left with a mess, so he's got to clean it up, and it's not going to take one year to do it," said Democrat Sue Dorsey, 60, huffing as she circled Sparks Marina, a man-made lake on the edge of a spanking new -- and lightly trafficked -- shopping mall.
But the overriding sentiment expressed in two days of conversation with voters around Washoe County was disappointment, even disillusionment, laced with more than a bit of impatience. If people had unrealistic expectations for their young president, they still seem to blame Obama for dashing those hopes -- even if some think he is not entirely responsible.
"I just think the feeling in the country is overall a feeling of dejection, or depression," said Gevedon, as he headed into a video shop with a friend. "People aren't happy like we were in the '90s."
Obama, who plans a town hall meeting in Henderson and a speech to business leaders in Las Vegas, points out that his predecessor, George W. Bush, ran an enormous deficit and began a series of government bailouts in rescuing the financial industry.
"But all of those issues are attaching themselves to Obama," said Eric Herzik, who heads the political science department at the University of Nevada in Reno. Big government and expensive Washington programs have never been popular in Nevada, a state with a broad libertarian streak and an abiding grudge toward its distant landlord. (About 90% of the land is controlled by the federal government.)
The strong sense, Herzik said, is that Obama's efforts "have helped Wall Street . . . but they're not doing a lot for [Reno's] Virginia Street."
Reno and Sparks sit side by side, in a bowl just over the mountain from Lake Tahoe, sharing lovely views of the Sierra Nevada and a service economy ravaged by steep declines in gambling and tourism. Together, they form the urban core of Washoe County, which has traditionally been Nevada's political battleground.
Democrats typically win big in Las Vegas and the surrounding area and lose rural Nevada to Republicans. So the Obama campaign focused heavily on Reno and Sparks, erasing the GOP's long-standing registration advantage and even gaining a slight edge on election day. The result was a blowout: Obama prevailed 55% to 43% and became the first Democrat to carry Washoe County since 1964. (The statewide outcome was identical.)
But feelings have changed in the last 15 or so months.
John Ainsworth, a Democrat, is frustrated the president has not done more to overcome Republican resistance. "I think it's past time to pull out a bigger stick," said Ainsworth, 57, who runs a struggling apprenticeship program for union carpenters. He has not had a pay raise in two years, which makes his financial squeeze even tighter with two adult children and a granddaughter living at home.