Charlotte, North Carolina - Nema Buie and Vicki Ellefson, like many people around the world, were brought together four years ago by Barack Obama. It was easy back then, to fall in love with the candidate’s message of hope and change, but things are different now.
Buie, 40, an African-American administrative assistant from Atlanta, and Ellefson, 67, a retired airline analyst from Boise, Idaho, met as volunteers at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver in 2008.
Buie wanted an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and she liked Obama’s stance on education. Ellefson admired his eloquence and despised what she called the “dark ages” of the previous administration.
The unlikely pair became close friends in Denver, a testament to the unifying power of Obama’s presidential campaign. His party is now trying desperately to rekindle similar voter passion in the face of tightening polls, a sagging economy and unemployment of over eight per cent.
Buie and Ellefson decided to return as volunteers this week at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, but even these Obama loyalists admit the campaign buzz is no match for 2008. This year, in fact, they came for different reasons.
'Americans coming together'?
“It’s a different atmosphere. Back then everything was new and wonderful. The enthusiasm is still there but this year we’re more protective of Obama. We’ve watched people try to break him down for four years,” said Buie.
Going into this week’s three-day summit, “Protecting Obama” might be a more appropriate slogan than what the conference is using: “Americans coming together.”
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Ten thousand volunteers and an all-star cast of speakers, including former president Bill Clinton and a keynote address from rising star Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, may not be enough to shield the president from a disappointed electorate.
A Reuters survey released on Sunday found that 76 per cent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. The same poll showed Obama tied with challenger Mitt Romney at 45 per cent.
The fact that winning a second term is proving more difficult than getting to the White House in the first place is not lost on party leaders.
“There are people who are to some degree disappointed. Let’s face it: it’s not as sexy to run for a second term. There’s an image and a record to defend and the economy, although it is clearly on the rebound, is still somewhat weak. It’s a greater challenge,” Emmanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Al Jazeera.
As he put it: “People are not as fired up.”
At Charlotte’s Marshall Park, a few blocks away from the arena where Obama will accept his party’s nomination on Thursday night, disappointment and apathy were overshadowed by outrage at the president.
Around 70 people, more than half affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, have gathered to protest corporate greed and inequality. A sign leaning against the table of the camp’s makeshift kitchen reads, “Obama is hopeless.”
“What we want is for him to follow through,” said Aaron Black, 39, a photographer from Minneapolis who was an organiser of the original Occupy Wall Street protests in September 2011.
“I want to see those guys on Wall Street, those ‘banksters,’ prosecuted. We want follow through.”
Excitement 'not there'
At a rally near the convention centre, Randy Holmes, an investor and self-avowed political junkie from New Jersey who attended the DNC in 2008, admitted that this year “the excitement is not there, clearly.”
“In Denver, it was palpable. I’ll never forget; there were 70,000 people and I’d never experienced anything like that kind of enthusiasm. Change was in the air. It was like when my parents talked about [John F] Kennedy,” Holmes, 67, said.
“What has happened over the last four years is that we, as Americans, tend to create icons and invariably they fail to live up to our expectations.”
Holmes explains the disappointment many Democratic faithful feel in terms of Obama’s own political evolution.
“This is harsh because I am an admirer of what he has done, but he’s become a shrewd politician par excellance, and American politicians understand our society and exploit it. They know we want instant gratification; we don’t seek substance, we seek the superficial. So [they] become soundbytes and sloganeers.”
Despite the malaise among elements of the Democratic Party, millions of supporters such as Buie and Ellefson remain steadfast in their support for Obama.
They point to his success in health care reform, foreign policy and his efforts to save the American automotive sector.
“In 2008, I was struck by the eloquence of this man. It was such a different feeling from the Bush-Cheney government. I was very enthusiastic and I saw Obama as someone who could represent us in a positive light to the rest of the world,” said Ellefson.
“I still believe in him,” she added.
As the convention in Charlotte begins this week, it will be up to Obama and his high-level party allies to rally sentiment left over from the 2008 campaign and galvanise supporters who may have gone astray.
As Buie puts it: “Some things have been accomplished, some things have been half done, and some things not at all. I want to see him get a chance to finish what he started.”