January 20, 2013

Is the U.S. better off? Depends on whom you ask

People in a county of northern Ohio expect President Obama to ruin the nation or rescue it.

The Washington Post

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.

click image to enlarge

Cathy Morris

Washington Post photos

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Bill Herr

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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