PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The last time you came to Rhode Island an overflow crowd of 10,000 supporters braved slush-clotted streets in Providence's Mount Pleasant neighborhood and a freezing winter rain to cheer you at Rhode Island College.
That was three days before the state's presidential primary and you vigorously touted your themes of hope and change. A week earlier, your then-opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton mocked your message at the same venue.
"I put hope on my signs, I wrote a book called the Audacity of Hope,'' you said. "Now Senator Clinton and others are saying he peddles false hope, The implication is if you talk about hope, then you must be naive, your head must be in the clouds.''
Mrs. Clinton won the Rhode Island primary but you carried the state in the general election with 63 percent of the vote. Now two recent public opinion surveys-- one from Channel 12, the other from Brown University-- show your job approval rating down to 45 percent.
Our state is hurting, with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates and foreclosure signs littering inner-city neighborhoods like fallen autumn leaves. You and the Democrats in Congress have tried to help the economy but many voters here don't feel it. Our Republican governor, Don Carcieri, opposed your federal stimulus but then used $240 million of it to balance his last budget. Our state has also been the beneficiary of $75 million in Race to the Top education money, which hopefully will help our faltering public schools. You have cut income taxes for most workers but you don't seem to be getting credit for it.
Rhode Island's political landscape has shifted since your campaign. It might take Lewis Carroll to explain our through-the-looking glass governor's race. The Democratic candidate for governor, Frank Caprio, tried to shop his candidacy to the Republican Party. The independent candidate, Lincoln Chafee, was a Republican when you served with him in the U.S. Senate. He now talks like a Democrat. When you ran for president, Chafee endorsed you and you praised him lavishly for his lonely GOP vote against the Iraq War. You probably won't be boosting Chafee today.
We know you are here to rally the Democratic base in a cobalt blue state and raise money for Democrat David Cicilline's campaign for Congress. Cicilline in leading in media polls but it is no secret that no Democrat is safe this year; if he loses a seat last won by a Republican in 1992 the House is sure to tilt to the GOP. And Republicans are fighting back; this afternoon Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown comes to Rhode Island to campaign for Cicilline's opponent, state Rep. John Loughlin.
The Tea Party is not much of a force in Rhode Island but anger at the government and especially the bank bailouts remains high. Many people understand that you had to save the capitalists from themselves in the too-big-to-fail financial world, but wonder why there was so much socialism for the rich in the deal. In exchange for taxpayer bail-outs, why wasn't there something like a six-month foreclosure moratorium in there for the unemployed homeowner? It seems to many that the guys with the big bonuses still fly in private jets while those of us driving clunker cars in Rhode Island just had our auto taxes raised.
You have tried to treat the American people as adults, telling them that the mess you inherited from the Bush administration cannot be cleaned up in 18 months. Yet, in this time of economic peril, people don't want to hear it. Some voters seem to think you can wave a magic wand and get full employment. Nobody wants to hear the truth - that in a 21st century global economy, a United States president probably has less influence over the international economy than ever.
As is the case with all presidents, you are discovering that governing is more complicated and messier than campaigning. Many Rhode Islanders now believe Hillary Clinton had a point when she said your message of hope and change was a tad naive. The era of the permanent campaign and the every-day-is-election-day zeitgeist of Washington is not hospitable to the kind of across-the-aisle compromise you talked about in 2008. It looks from here like Washington is as polarized as ever.
Regardless of what happens next Tuesday, you will be president for two more years. You can only wish that voters here and across the nation have more patience with the recovery and adopt the Rhode Island state motto, which, of course, is Hope.
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