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Can Obama Supporters Keep 'Hope' Alive?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Frederic Yonnet is taking the harmonica to new places. We'll tell you more in just a few minutes.

But first, as we mentioned earlier, the Democratic National Convention starts this week, where the hope is that the president and his party can rally his Democratic base and energize voters, which they did so successfully four years ago.

But with all the focus on the partisan fight, it's easy to forget that President Obama's road to the nomination was also long and hard fought within the Democratic Party, so to see if past is prelude, we decided to invite back a group of guests who were on our program four years ago. We wanted to see how they're doing and how they feel about the election.

Connie Guy is the former mayor of Mountville, Pennsylvania and a licensed practical nurse. Rick Bloomingdale is the president of Pennsylvania's AFL-CIO. That's the Federation of Labor Unions. Also with us, Burt Siegel. He's now retired as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Philadelphia. He's now volunteering for the Obama campaign. And Hannah Jane Sassaman is a development consultant at the Media Mobilizing Project. That's a nonprofit media organization based in Philadelphia.

Welcome back to all of you. It's great to talk to you again.

RICK BLOOMINGDALE: Thanks for having us.

BURT SIEGEL: It's a pleasure to be here.


MARTIN: Now, Hannah Jane, I think of all of the group, you may be the one who's had the biggest life change in recent years. I understand that since you've been on the program, you've become a new mom. Congratulations.

SASSAMAN: Thank you so much. It's true.

MARTIN: And you were part of this wave of younger voters who helped President Obama win the election decisively four years. I mean, younger voters came out decisively for President Obama four years ago. Now, I want to say, not that you're getting old, but that you're older. You're kind of catching up with the rest of us. So I did want to ask if your enthusiasm for the president is the same as it was four years ago.

SASSAMAN: I remember in 2008, the night of the election, I was standing in a parking lot of an abandoned mini-mall in North Philadelphia with hundreds of volunteers, and I remember the moment when people heard that Obama had won decisively, that he had enough of the electoral vote. And people started crying. People hugged. Some people started praying. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life, and I was extremely grateful for it.

And now that, you know, I have a kid and I'm thinking a lot about the future, and thinking about the entire city and the entire state and the entire country, there's more that we need to do than get excited every four years for an election. There's so much work we need to do empowering folks to make change in their own communities and supporting people with the solutions and the unity that they put forward.

So while I'm definitely going to come out and vote for the president and hope to push him to pass policies that give us all the dignity we deserve, I'm really a lot more invested in my community and unifying people across the state.

MARTIN: Connie Guy, what about you? You know, one of the - when we talked to you last, you were kind of at the crossroads of the Obama/Hillary Clinton clash, let's say, because you had a lot of constituents at the time. You were the mayor of a small town. National politics wasn't like your main preoccupation, but you had a lot of constituents who thought that, number one, Hillary Clinton deserved the job. She paid her dues. It was her turn. And who was this young whippersnapper, you know, Obama, coming along trying to, you know, claim her crown, you know, as it were?

And there was also some distrust and not exactly a level of comfort with him, you know, for all kinds of reasons. And I wanted to ask, you know, four years later, where are you and where are they?

CONNIE GUY: You know, that's very true. I was undoubtedly a Hillary Clinton supporter and had worked scrupulously for her campaign. When it was decided that Obama was going to be our frontrunner, though, I did jump onboard with that campaign and worked, again, hard for Obama's campaign, and I was glad that I did. You know, I actually - I stepped back and I began to listen a little closer and I was really impressed with President Obama at that time and I thought, you know, he's a smart man. He really does deserve to be the president of the United States. And I was very pleased that Hillary became his secretary of State.

Now, four years later, I'm still excited that President Obama is our president and I'm hoping very much that he's going to reign for the next four years. I think he deserves to do so. My concern now, though, is the average voter and what they know or, more so, what they don't know.

They don't know enough about what he has accomplished, and this concerns me, because I have had Democratic friends now tell me, you know, I voted for Obama four years ago but I'm not so sure I want to vote for him now. I don't see changes. I don't see anything he's done for us.

And I have to put a stop to them right away and say, look, all you have to do is go to WhiteHouse.gov and look at the initiatives and the laws that he has signed into place. There are so many from A to Z. It's listed right there in black and white, all of the accomplishments that he has been able to take care of. They're small. Some of them are large. However, he needs four more years to finish what he's started.

MARTIN: Rick Bloomingdale, what about you? What's the view like from the union members that you speak to?

BLOOMINGDALE: You know, union members are excited. We've seen a lot of good things come from the administration, the saving of the auto industry, the fact that we have thousands of people - we don't actually have any car plants in Pennsylvania, but we have parts manufacturers. And they're going gangbusters because the auto factories are going gangbusters. Our steel mills are working more than they have in years. We have steelworkers getting as much overtime as they can handle, and the steel mills are starting to hire folks.

MARTIN: But do these members credit the president for that or not? I mean, Connie Guy talked about the fact that you can go to WhiteHouse.gov and look up - at least, you know, the White House's version of what they've accomplished. But if people aren't feeling that in their own lives, does it make a difference? So I'm asking you, do your members feel that this administration is working for them or that the country's working for them and are they enthusiastic about the president?

BLOOMINGDALE: They are enthusiastic. Whether they all know, you know, there's an incredible amount of negative advertising going on right now in Pennsylvania, to where they're trying to trash the president. Most of them have a sense. I mean we've continued to communicate, as we always do with our members.

But Connie was right. The average voter doesn't always pay attention to what's happening, so are there some union members that ask the question, well, what has he done? Absolutely. And it's always up to us to say, here's a list. Boom, boom, boom. Here's what he's done. Here's how your life is better because of what he's done. But on the whole, you know, I think folks are going to get fired up and ready to roll.

MARTIN: Burt Siegel, you're the one person we didn't catch up with yet. Since the last time we talked, you've retired and...

SIEGEL: That's correct.

MARTIN: And I'm just asking, how do you feel about things?

SIEGEL: Well, I'm very supportive of the president and I'm cautiously hopeful. You know, I can't say I'm optimistic because I've followed elections long enough to remember when we thought Kerry was going to get elected. There have been any number of times where elections have turned around between now and Election Day.

But I really do believe that probably, for the first time since before World War II, you have two profoundly different ideologies represented by the two major parties. I think, if I were a Republican, I would say, my God, my party has been hijacked by people who kind of scare me. And so I'm hoping that there will be enough reasonable, if you will, Republicans who are going to say, you know, this isn't my father's Republican Party.

And, you know, maybe he could have done some things differently, but I know I will feel much more comfortable with Barack Obama being president for another four years than with Mitt Romney.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting though. We keep hearing about how a lot of the president's core constituencies have cooled to him, are not as enthusiastic about him. You know, African-Americans, Jewish voters, we are told, because there is a feeling that the president hasn't been as - has not insufficiently(ph) embraced Israel to the degree that some people would like.

You know, we keep hearing that different constituency groups are disillusioned with the president, but I'm not hearing that from you, Burt Siegel. Talk to me about that.

SIEGEL: No. In fact, one of the things that I'm working on, specifically, is outreach to the Jewish community, and yeah, look, we hear that. Nevertheless, there are certain facts that people have to look at. Under Barack Obama, Israel has gotten more military assistance than it has under previous administrations. He has made it very, very clear to the Arab world that the United States is not going to desert Israel and probably, more importantly, that if the Palestinians want to have a state, they are going to have to recognize that they need to live in peace next to a Jewish state.

That's what I want from my president. Whether he's been to Israel in his first term or not is nonsense.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm visiting with four voters who were on the program four years ago. Then we were talking about the Democratic primaries and the Democratic Party's efforts to resolve the fight between then-Senator Obama and then-Senator Hillary Clinton.

Now I'm catching up with them to see how things have changed for them, whether they're enthusiastic about their ticket in the next couple of months. I'm joined by Hannah Jane Sassaman, Burt Siegel, Rick Bloomingdale and Connie Guy.

Now, when I had the four of you on in 2008, you know, one of the things we talked about was race. You know, then-Senator Obama had just made a speech that a lot of people thought was aimed mainly at white voters in cities, focusing on racial issues, you know, trying to address some of the kind of racial undertones in the campaign.

Now, interestingly enough, race seems to have surfaced again in our political conversations for all kinds of reasons, and I don't know, Rick Bloomingdale, maybe I'll start with you on this. Is race still an issue in this campaign? Is it an issue for your - for the union members?

BLOOMINGDALE: Well, hopefully, it's not an issue for the union members, and I don't know if you'll recall, but four years ago, Rich Trumka, now the - then-secretary treasurer of the National AFL-CIO, now president - made a speech, particularly aimed at Western Pennsylvanians who were uncomfortable with the first African-American major candidate for the nomination and talked about how to deal with the race issue and, you know, let's put all that aside. Let's look at the policies. Who's going to stand up for workers?

And, you know, clearly you can see from the other side - Burt talked about some very scary people. They don't talk about race anymore, but they certainly use code words to talk about race, so there are still folks out there who are very uncomfortable with the fact that we have the first African-American president in the history of our nation, but if they look at what he's done for them, what he's done for the middle class, if they just look at their paychecks, you know, in terms of the tax cuts for the middle class, where they have a little bit more money to spend because of his policies and would have a lot more money if he hadn't gotten an obstructionist of Congress in 2010, but you know, if people look past that and just say, what has he done for me, they're going to see that President Obama has done a lot for the majority of Americans in this country. but you know, they need to move beyond it.

MARTIN: Connie Guy, what about you? I mean, friends, neighbors. Do you think that race is still an issue?

GUY: It - you know, Michel, it may be, but I remember saying four years ago that race matters not to me. I don't care what color my president is. I care about what kind of president he is and he's a good one.

By the time the election gets here, the Romney campaign will have spent a billion - over a billion dollars in campaign slam ads, and I'm sure that they're going to slam President Obama and it's going to involve race. You know, I suffer from fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. I'm on disability. The things that President Obama has done for this country - this is no popularity contest. This isn't "America's Got Talent." This is the country and its people, everyday people who have illnesses, who are suffering, who need hope.

Five billion dollars alone went into education and it covers a broad band of things, from education to health care. his initiatives, the American Recovery Act. Five billion dollars. That's where I'd like to see that billion dollars that the Romney campaign's raising instead of the slamming ads and the cutting down and the division of race and creed. It's just ridiculous, and it's enough to make somebody just ill.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, a number of you used the word success, and that's a word that we heard a lot during last week's Republican National Convention - about success. And so I wanted to end our conversation on the eve of the Democratic National Convention - all of you are Democrats, as we said - by asking you what you think success means. What does it mean to have a successful country?

Rick Bloomingdale, I understand that you're actually going to be there. You're heading to Charlotte, so you'll be at the convention?


MARTIN: Yes? Right. So why don't you start. Why don't you start us off. So what do you think success means? What do you think it means to have a successful country?

BLOOMINGDALE: Well, I think a successful country means that, you know, we have the opportunities for ourselves and our children and our parents to have a decent life. Not everybody's going to be a millionaire in America, but folks should have a decent income in order to pursue their dreams and the opportunities that they want to pursue. This president is the one who is going to be able to help us achieve those dreams.

MARTIN: Hannah Jane, why don't you pick up the thread there.

SASSAMAN: Sure. And I'm excited. I'm feeling really hopeful about the ideas of success because I think for me and for many, many people in my community, what success means is that our joy, our safety, our dignity, the happiness of our families and the happiness of our communities isn't predicated on the suffering, on the failure, on the sickness of others. And that's what I think success means from a granular individual level, branching out to a home, to a block, to a community, to a country.

MARTIN: Burt, what about you?

SIEGEL: Well, number one, I think health care that is not dependent upon your ability to pay for it would be success. I think success would mean that people don't have to go into tremendous debt, that people should believe that banks are not trying to do everything they can to put them in a situation through, you know, offering loans to people who the bank knows full well can never afford to pay it. Success would be a lot fewer people being stabbed by a system that is not compassionate any longer.

MARTIN: Connie Guy, final thought from you.

GUY: For me, success would mean simply having comprehensive educational opportunities and our younger generation being able to succeed in the coming years, not having to fear how they're going to be able to live and survive and take care of responsibilities, and I think this president can deliver that.

MARTIN: That was Connie Guy. She's the former mayor of Mountville, Pennsylvania. She joined us from member station WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Also with us was Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania. He joined us from member station WITF also. Also with them, Hannah Jane Sassaman. She's a development consultant at the Media Mobilizing Project. And Burt Siegel, a retired executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. He's now a volunteer for the Obama campaign. They joined me from Philadelphia.

And as I mentioned earlier, these were four voters who joined us four years ago to talk about their assessment of the campaign then, and we were grateful to be able to get them back together now, four years later.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

BLOOMINGDALE: Thanks a lot.

GUY: Thank you.

SASSAMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.