FREMONT, Ohio – On the same day, in the same county of northern Ohio, two new grandparents prepared to drive to the same factory for work. They had started their careers at Arm & Hammer in the same year, and for more than two decades they had stood together on a concrete floor and watched baking soda roll down an 80-foot production line. But, on this morning, what they saw looked nothing alike.
Bill Herr, 61, left a house that had declined in value by 20 percent, in a neighborhood blemished by foreclosures, in a town where he believed the economy for the middle class was “falling apart.” He said goodbye to a wife who was recovering from open-heart surgery, which she blamed in small part on the stress and disappointment of the presidential election. He grabbed a coat purchased for $6 at Goodwill and walked out a front door where he had recently hung a sign created by a local Christian motorcycle group: “AMERICA NEEDS GOD’S HELP! PRAYER OUR ONLY HOPE.”
Cathy Morris, 53, left a home she had bought with the help of a middle-class tax break and then drove by the mailbox where she sent regular $25 checks to President Obama’s campaign. She passed through a town that she believed was “almost back” and pulled into an Arm & Hammer factory where orders had increased by 5 percent and management was once again hiring. “Obama,” she said. “Thank goodness.”
This is the America that Obama will govern in his second term: A place divided not only by ideology, race and class, but also by the perception of reality. Four years since Obama first took office, is the country better or worse off? Safer or more at risk? Principled or desperately lost?
Here in Fremont, as in much of America, it all depends on whom you ask. In this rural, Rust Belt county where Obama won exactly 50 percent of the vote, located in a state where he won 50 percent, residents expect Obama to either ruin the country or rescue it.
Inside an Arm & Hammer factory that billows smoke across the farmlands of Ohio, 180 employees now self-segregate into what Morris calls “ideological islands.” Co-workers who were once moderate Democrats or Republicans shifted fully to their sides over the past four years, intensifying the disconnect.
There are free copies of a National Rifle Association monthly magazine in one break room and, as of late last year, a life-size cardboard cutout of Obama in the other.
And then there are Morris and Herr, two longtime employees working side-by-side, each anticipating Obama’s second inauguration as a seminal moment.
For one, it is confirmation that life has gotten better.
For the other, it is proof that life has gotten worse.
Bill and Sally Herr built their farmhouse on the outskirts of Fremont in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, and they agreed to decorate it in homage to the country they loved. They placed two American flags on the lawn, five flag magnets on the fridge, a flag-themed coloring book in the grandkids’ room and a flag throw blanket on the living room couch. They framed another flag just inside the entryway, displaying it under three words that summarized their philosophy: “God Bless America.”
But lately, when they talked about the state of the country, the phrase Bill preferred was something different, something much less reassuring.
“Obama’s America,” he said.
Bill and Sally were lifelong Republicans who had been wary of Obama from the start, but it was the frustrations of the past four years that had welcomed Fox News as a constant presence into their living room and tea party members to their annual backyard Fourth of July bash. They wanted friends with whom to share their frustrations.
“The first time he won, I really just considered him inexperienced and misguided,” Sally said. “This time I think he is purposely taking us to a place we don’t recognize.”
Cathy Morris, an Arm & Hammer quality supervisor, had worked alongside Bill for every one of those years without ever speaking to him about politics. She had overheard enough of his conversations to know: “He’s way over on the other side,” she said — and she preferred to associate only with her own side whenever possible.
She picked out an elliptical machine at the gym farthest from the TVs, because they were always tuned to Fox News. She deleted conservative friends from her Facebook page. In what increasingly felt like a fight over basic American principles, she decided her role was to reinforce the stakes with liberals already on her side.
How, she wondered, could anyone not see the proof? The local unemployment rate had dropped from 13 percent to just more than 6 percent. The nearby National Machinery Plant, which had nearly closed its doors a few years earlier, now had trucks lining up at the loading docks. The two colleges in town had become more diverse, and Arm & Hammer had begun offering benefits to same-sex domestic partners. Because of health-care reform, Morris’ youngest daughter, 22, has been able to stay on her mother’s health insurance plan. Morris decided to repay the president by doing something she had never done, making regular donations to his re-election campaign.
In this county of 50-50, she had decided there was no more room for ambivalence. “You are all in for him or against him, and you have to commit,” Morris said.
Local membership had risen for both the tea party and the Democratic Women’s Club, and one disagreement on election night had resulted in an assault charge. Even the area’s once-tranquil town hall meetings had devolved into a shouting match, with one woman suggesting that liberals in Washington should be “shot in the head,” prompting local Democrats to demand a police investigation. Ever since, local politics had all but come to a standstill.
But the line at Arm & Hammer had to keep moving, 270 cartons a minute, so employees had decided to guard the peace by talking sparingly about Obama or his second inauguration.
So they stood together in polite silence and watched baking soda roll down the manufacturing line and onto the trucks, where it would be delivered into an economy that was improving or combusting, in a country where life was getting better or worse.