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09.21.10

What Did Velma Hart Expect?

The middle-class town crier who spoke truth to Obama believed he could work miracles. Tunku Varadarajan on why she’s so disappointed—and who’s to blame.

Will Velma Hart enter the political lexicon, her town-hall encounter with President Obama coming to be described as his “Velma Hart Moment,” or some such shorthand that prompts people to nod knowingly in the weeks and months to come?

Hart—seen here in this clip—is the very courteous middle-class woman who stood before her president (the possessive pronoun is intended to underscore that she is a passionate Obama supporter) and said in tones of palpable, almost painful regret that she was now “exhausted” defending him. Behold the Democratic foot-soldier giving voice, before a national audience, to her battle fatigue.

In a way she's right: It's exhausting trying to say to everyone, “Come on, give it time, he's not a miracle worker.” But she's also spoiled and disillusioned.

Behold, also, the consternation. She thought that she voted for the Messiah, and can’t understand why she doesn’t feel uplifted by him, transported to a better plane: "I've been told that I voted for a man who said he's going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet."

Obama’s Velma Hart ProblemHart ends with a trembling question to the president. Referring to her straitened circumstances—she is pondering the prospect of “franks and beans” as a belt-tightening household repast—she asks: “Is this my new reality?” This question reflects the universal fear and frustration over the economy, something that crosses party lines. This woman “believes” in Obama, so she's not QUITE one of the opposition, but she's hurting economically and that is causing her to lose hope. Hart’s question is one that most of Obama’s voters would like to ask him. Once you get past the very vocal part of the left that will support Obama just because he's Obama, many Democrats are thinking exactly as Hart is.

Obama, in his response, said that "times are tough for everybody"—which made me wonder whether he really got the point of Hart’s question. Times are not "tough for everybody": The poor are as poor as they ever were. The rich are as rich if not richer. But it's toughest on people who got a glimpse of a better life ahead and now think it's slipping away.

Hart is one of those people. And here, one is tempted to say to her, “suck it up, lady.” The preoccupation with “middle class” constancy strikes me as obsessive. The lady is a CFO, even if not of a private company. Her two kids are in private school. This is expensive, so could it be that she and her husband might be living beyond their means? She presumably has heath care, and she likely supported the health care bill—adding to the tax burden of her middle class.

It isn’t Obama's fault that the economy is in a shambles. Obama inherited a mess—and he didn't inherit it from Bill Clinton. Obama’s job is to limit, and then repair, the damage that he inherited; politically, he needs to be able to deflect the ire of those who are hurting, and to maintain an illusion of change.

Velma Hart wants change; she wants it celebrated, and she doesn't want to have to point out the problems. In a way she's right: It's exhausting trying to say to everyone “Come on, give it time, he's not a miracle worker.” But she's also spoiled and disillusioned, because she's starting to realize that she voted for a miracle worker, and that she was taken in by her illusions.

And yet—I have not a shred of doubt that she will vote for Obama in 2012. Illusions have a stubborn way of living on.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)