Still standing by Obama: Economy hurts, but local backers in black community vow to keep up fight

Angela Jackson (left), owner of Anjae's All in One Hair Studio, talks with Michelle Felder about the president's campaign on Thursday.

Wade Spees

Monalisa Denise Smiley remembers screaming and celebrating Barack Obama's historic presidential election in the privacy of her bedroom.

That was almost three years ago.

Since then, she's seen firsthand the struggles some are having to make ends meet, buying medicine off the store shelf because they're out of work and can't afford to go to a doctor.

As she sat inside Miriam's African Hair Braiding last week, Smiley said Obama is doing a good job -- and that Republicans in Congress are more responsible for a lack of progress.

"Every time he tries to work something out," she said, "the Republicans turn against him like he doesn't know what he's doing or what he's saying."

Almost four years after Obama's epic primary battle against Hillary Clinton

made black beauty salons a barometer of South Carolina's political world, The Post and Courier went back to hear what those supporters think of the president today.

His political base here is standing by him. Supporters note he inherited an economy that had begun its downward spiral, and while some are growing anxious for solutions, they say he deserves a second term.

There has been a change, however, in enthusiasm. Black voter turnout next year might not match the overwhelming wave of the 2008 presidential election, when almost 73 percent of South Carolina's eligible black voters showed up, compared to 64 percent of eligible white voters.

It will be a tough road for Democrats as they try to re-create the excitement and turnout they saw in 2008, said Todd Shaw, an associate professor of politics at the University of South Carolina.

"It's an issue of mobilization and level of enthusiasm," Shaw said. "The economy has taken the wind out of the sails of a lot of folks, African-Americans disproportionately."

The economy

The beauty shop is a place to converse, relax, laugh and leave feeling better about yourself.

Angela Jackson, who hosted President Bill Clinton at her Anjae's All in One Hair Studio on Cosgrove Avenue during the 2008 primary, has all sorts of ways to pamper customers. But she knows the real world remains right outside her door.

Her salon has been broken into twice this year. She no longer employs any stylists like she did during Clinton's visit but hopes to begin hiring soon.

While Jackson originally supported Hillary Clinton, she's now an Obama supporter and sees some of his struggles as having a racial root. "No other president has been insulted like he has," Jackson said. "What did he say when he came into office? It's going to take time. Bush left us a mess."

Michelle Felder, director of the nonprofit People to People Plus, dropped by Anjae's last week and agreed that times are harder.

"People who donated items before are looking for donations themselves now," she said. "It's important that we help each other. That was what America was about. We lost it."

Felder said she gives Obama an "A-plus plus for standing up to what he has had to," adding that many critics never gave him a chance.

"We're just looking for change -- change for the better and not for the worse," she said.

Katie B. Catalon, who ran a beauty salon for 22 years at Meeting and Maple streets, now commutes from Charleston to her job in Washington as president of the National Beauty Culturists' League, a trade organization for cosmetologists.

She said many members are facing challenges because their clients are coming in less frequently to get their hair done, but she gives Obama an A-plus and credit for trying to get the economy rolling again.

"I don't have any regrets, and I will tell you why. With President Obama, he thinks first before opening his mouth," she said. "We are not blaming him because we realize he inherited a very high deficit. He cannot undo in three years what eight years took away."

Catalon said she plans to campaign as hard for Obama next year as she did three years ago.

"The flame may not be burning as bright, but we're going to ignite another candle," she said. "The economy may not come back overnight, and we understand that. But we can't become angry. We can't become complacent. We can't let apathy come in."

Better choices?

While black voters in South Carolina are not second- guessing their support for Obama, some are wondering if he could have made some better choices.

Former state Sen. Herbert Fielding of Charleston was one of the first on board with Obama in the Lowcountry.

He is dismayed by recent criticism from former Democratic U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, who blamed Obama for not enforcing trade laws or working with Congress to cut taxes.

"It really tees me off," Fielding said. "A lot of these other politicians coming along with negative stuff on Barack have had their problems, too. I think it's really undeserved because I think (Obama) is doing a heck of a job as president. He deserves not only our praise but our help instead of a whole lot of criticism."

Dwayne Green, a lawyer and early Obama supporter, said he thinks Obama has done the best he could with a difficult situation. Asked what grade he would give Obama, Green said, "B-minus."

But Green and Fielding said Obama's main flaw is that he's too ready to compromise.

"I think he's given a little too doggone much to the conservative Republican section in this country," Fielding said.

Green said, in hindsight, it might have been better had Obama tackled immigration reform and the economy instead of health care reform -- particularly when he had Democratic majorities to work with.

"It's definitely tough, but people who really believe in Obama's vision, I think there's a hope that if he's able to get a second term, he'll learn from missed opportunities. And if he gets another Democratic majority, he'll handle that differently."

Turnout at stake

Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said she senses many are ambivalent about next year's election.

Many voters think Obama is a good person "but has not come through with the change that they had hoped for."

"There is not overwhelming disappointment because most voters right now feel like the blame is to be shared among all our elected officials in Washington," she said, adding that Obama still has strong support in the black community but has experienced some slippage among black women.

"In the end, I would not expect the record turnout we experienced in the last election because the excitement is just not there," she said, "unless the Republican nominee stirs up enough anger or fear among the Democratic and independent voters in the state to motivate them to really send a message."

Any lack of enthusiasm on the Democratic side going into 2012 likely won't affect Obama's chances in South Carolina. Even with the high turnout among his base in 2008, he still lost the state by 9 points to Republican Sen. John McCain.

But an enthusiasm gap could spell trouble for Democrats here running for state and local offices.

And there are other challenges to overcome for that side. Since Obama has no primary opposition, Democrats here aren't seeing many national candidates. Also, the state's new Voter ID law, which requires a picture ID to vote, could dampen turnout.

Those concerns ultimately could take a back seat to coming up with some solutions for the nation's ailing economy and other problems. For Democrats, the message -- what kind of change Obama will bring in the next four years -- will be central to success, Shaw said.

"It's really quite important that the get-out-the-vote effort try to stress to some degree to what extent the president has answers to these difficulties," he said. "The campaign line can't be: 'It could be worse.' "

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.